2006-04-09-British ducks and geese could be bird flu carriersUnderstanding Avian Influenza
2006-04-09-British ducks and geese could be bird flu carriers
The death of a Scottish swan from bird flu suggests that other infected birds are flying around Britain, but the chances of any human contracting the virus are still extraordinary low, the head of the United Nations' global fight against the disease said last night.
More than 70 animal health experts were sent out this weekend into the six-mile surveillance zone around the coastal village of Cellardyke in Fife, where the swan was found, to collect bird carcasses, photograph them and send them for laboratory sampling. Scottish farmers within the zone were told to keep their hens indoors and diagnostic laboratories were working today to test eight other birds for the H5N1 virus.
David Nabarro, the UN's chief co-ordinator on bird flu, told The Observer: 'The one swan is a good indicator there will be other species, like ducks and geese, that are flying around carrying H5N1, excreting it in their faeces and therefore also capable of getting infection into domestic poultry and into other species.'
Nabarro said Britons should trust the government because the UK's preparedness plan was considered 'one of the best in the world'. He advised people not to stop eating poultry 'because the poultry, by and large, that you buy is remarkably safe, and if you cook it properly you kill anything that's inside it'.
Thousands of people across the country have reported dead birds to the authorities since Britain's first case of bird flu, in the native mute swan, was reported three days ago. A hotline set up by Defra, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has received more than 4,000 calls in two days from members of the public saying they have spotted a dead bird.
But so far only the swan has tested positive for the virus, although more than 1,000 birds and ducks from more than 30 sites across the country have been checked in the months since Europe began to be affected by the disease.
Andre Farrar, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), said: 'There's an expectation that we're about to see a great array of new cases, and we may or may not. Nobody has any idea which way this will go.'
The Cellardyke swan, found on the village's harbour slipway two weeks ago, was almost certainly infected last February and had probably been dead for three weeks, experts believe.
Nabarro, who spoke to The Observer in Hanoi, which he is visiting as part of a tour of South East Asia, home to most of the 109 people who have died from the disease, said the British public would find it hard to understand just how low the risk level is, despite the concerns. 'I'm not surprised that people are quite scared in the UK and other countries with the arrival of swans that are dead and are found to have H5N1 on board,' he said. 'It's very hard for individuals to handle a rare infection, because they're always going to say "Well, I could be the unfortunate one, even if it is a very, very low possibility". On the other way round, many of us buy lottery tickets, though the chance of winning is incredibly low, but that doesn't prevent us.
'I want people to trust the UK government, to follow the advice, particularly of the health departments concerned, because theirs are some of the best plans in the world, for avian influenza preparedness and the pandemic preparedness, and to go on eating poultry.'
At a press conference yesterday, Scotland's chief veterinary officer, Charles Milne, said: 'We have taken a huge number of calls from people reporting dead wild birds. These are being responded to, but we want to stress to the public that this is routine surveillance, not suspect cases of the disease.
'This is why we are carrying out ongoing surveillance, but we will not drop our guard. We will continue to work to get a handle on this situation.'
The restrictions on farmers in the surveillance zone are likely to be in place for at least the next three weeks, but would last for longer if other cases were found.
The worries about bird flu have also had an impact on pet owners, particularly as it is known that cats can catch and carry the virus. Vets and animal charities urged owners this weekend not to abandon their pets because of the disease, after seeing this happen in affected areas of France and Germany.
The RSPCA revealed it dealt with six cases of abandoned hens last week, which officers believe were pets rather than bred commercially. A spokeswoman, Becky Hawkes, said: 'It is of significant concern to us that people are worried about their birds and also their cats. We know that cats have been abandoned in France and Germany and, apart from the terrible risk it leaves the pets in, people should realise this is a crime.'
Despite assurances from supermarket chains that sales of poultry and eggs have not been affected, others are not convinced. Ian Miller, owner of Scotland's largest organic farm shop and restaurant, which is on the edge of Britain's wild bird risk area, said: 'It's a lovely sunny day during the Easter holidays. Normally we would be very busy, but it is dead.
'Even although there is zero risk to public health, there has been so much bad publicity and people are very cautious. I have no doubt that people will be put off buying chickens,' said Miller.
He feared for the future of his farm, Jamesfield, near Cupar in Perthshire, and spoke of the irony that his efforts to focus on quality rather than mass-produced quantity could be among the first victims of the scare.
'I don't think loyal customers who have been buying from us for 20 years will be put off, but this will slow up the trend in people going organic. Only one swan has died, but people get the wrong message that poultry is unsafe.'