Bird Flu Alarm

2006-04-10-Farmers fear free-range panic in the crucial run-up to Easter

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-04-10-Farmers fear free-range panic in the crucial run-up to Easter

The poultry industry will be watching for signs of a consumer backlash against chicken and eggs today following confirmation of the first case of H5N1 bird flu in Britain.

As thousands of callers rang the Government's hotline with reports of dead swans, geese, gulls and garden birds, farmers and health officials repeated assurances that there was no risk to public health.

The run-up to Easter is traditionally a bumper week for sales of poultry and eggs and a slump in sales could cost the £4.2 billion industry dearly.

Tests were continuing yesterday on the carcases of 14 birds found dead in Scotland over the past few days as the Government's bird flu contingency plan swung into action.

Scientists were ordered to test birds following confirmation on Thursday that a mute swan washed up at Cellardyke, Fife, had died from the H5N1 strain. This has killed millions of birds across the world, mostly in Asia. It has also infected at least 191 people living in close proximity to birds, killing more than half of them.

Although its risk to human health in Britain is thought to be small, there are fears that a pandemic of the disease among wild birds could devastate the poultry industry, which has 270 million birds on more than 22,000 farms.

Yesterday, scientists were concentrating resources on the 965 square mile "wild bird risk area" on the east coast of Scotland between the Firth of Forth and Stonehaven. They are concerned that the swan's death may not be an isolated case.

The farmers of 250,000 free-range poultry in the area were told to put their birds under cover where possible to reduce exposure to wild species.

There has been criticism that officials were slow to act after the swan's body was reported to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Wednesday last week. Full test results from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, were released eight days later.

Scotland's rural affairs minister, Ross Finnie, said the laboratory's scientists would be working around the clock to test birds they suspected were infected. The laboratory has tested about 120 birds a week in recent weeks. In the past six months, about 5,000 samples have been analysed.

"The laboratory will be working 24/7 and will remain open over the Easter holidays," said Mr Finnie.

The State Veterinary Service - the agency responsible for animal health and welfare - said it had 300 animal health officers and 300 vets ready to work overtime to collect carcases of swans, geese or ducks.

Mr Finnie said there had been an increase in the number of dead birds being reported. But he added: "This is perfectly proper, this is expected. Some of them will be birds that have been attacked by cats in gardens."

By yesterday afternoon almost 2,500 calls had been received on the Defra hotline. Previously it had 600 a week.

The line, which was criticised for keeping office hours over the winter, extended its opening times in response to the crisis and is now available from 6am to 10pm every day.

Bird charities were also fielding calls and reported confusion among callers.

Swan charities received messages from worried residents who suggested that their flock should be culled. One caller asked if he was within his rights to shoot swans he suspected of having bird flu.

Ken Merriman, the owner of the Swan Rescue Sanctuary in Wimborne, Dorset, said: "It has been manic with people reporting dead swans. It is ridiculous and I am losing my patience."

John Ward, a volunteer at the Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton, Surrey, which has 200 swans on its lake, said: "We were expecting it, but people are saying that we should cull the swans because they fly over houses and could kill families.

"They have got this completely out of perspective."

But concerns were raised about how the hotline was coping with calls. One caller who found six dead starlings said he was told to "chuck them in the bin".

Richard White said he reported the birds, found in his garden in Badsey, Worcs, to Defra. "They showed no interest whatsoever and said they are not migratory, chuck them in the bin."

Health officials played down the risk to humans, stressing that the disease spread to people only from close contact with bird saliva or from breathing in dust from faeces.

Dr Alan Hay, the director of the World Health Organisation influenza centre, said: "It's certainly negligible at the moment, given that we really don't know the circumstances whereby this swan contracted the infection, and whether there are any other birds in the area or elsewhere in the country that are infected."

The Food Standards Agency repeated its advice about poultry and egg preparation.

Poultry should be thoroughly cooked to leave no red juices and eggs should be cooked until the white is hard.

Anyone handling raw poultry should wash their hands thoroughly and clean all surfaces and utensils with soap and hot water, said the FSA.

Understanding Avian Influenza