Bird Flu Alarm

2006-04-07-Three million poultry fall within Britain's first bird flu zone

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-04-07-Three million poultry fall within Britain's first bird flu zone

Nearly 1,000 square miles of Britain were designated as a "wild bird risk area" yesterday as the Government attempted to halt the spread of deadly bird flu.

The move, which affects more than three million poultry, followed confirmation that a wild swan discovered in Scotland was killed by the H5N1 strain.

Farmers and poultry owners within the zone have been told to keep their flocks indoors wherever possible. Pet owners living close to the site where the swan was found have been advised to keep dogs on leads and cats indoors.

The dead mute swan, which was discovered on a harbour slipway in the village of Cellardyke, Fife, is the first case of H5N1 in a British wild bird. In November the disease was identified in a consignment of finches imported from Taiwan.

H5N1 has killed millions of birds in Asia and is one of the most virulent strains of bird flu. Its spread across the world is particularly alarming because it can be transmitted from birds to people living in close proximity. Almost 200 people, living near poultry, have been infected. More than half have died.

Charles Milne, Scotland's chief veterinary officer, said the swan was reported last Wednesday and collected for testing the following day.

Twelve other swans - including two found dead in a Glasgow park - and two wild birds were being tested for the same disease at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency.

A 1.8-mile protection zone was set up around Cellardyke yesterday morning, surrounded by a six-mile surveillance zone.

But by mid-afternoon this was extended to a 965 square mile wild bird risk area to the east of the M90 covering 175 flocks and 3.1 million birds. About 260,000 are free range poultry and will need to be moved indoors.

"We are proposing to issue a veterinary directive to owners of poultry to house their birds where possible," said Mr Milne.

If this is not possible, they would be expected to put in place measures to separate their stock from wild birds.

Gatherings and movement of birds in that area would be banned and there would be enhanced surveillance of wild birds, he said.

Farmers, the Government and the Food Standards Agency stressed that the disease had not spread to the food chain and there was no risk from eating poultry or eggs. Chicken, turkey and egg sales are traditionally high in the run-up to Easter.

Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers' Union, urged the public to continue eating poultry.

"There are no implications for public health or consumers," he said.

Scotland's chief medical officer, Harry Burns, said the threat was extremely low.

"The risk to public health is no greater today than it was last week or last month, nothing has changed," he said.

People should not be worried about eating poultry products, such as chicken or eggs, if they were properly cooked.

Paul Walton, the species and habitat policy officer for the RSPB, said: "The critical thing to remember is this doesn't mean we've got a human pandemic of flu that has arrived in this country.

"In fact the risk to public health is still very, very low indeed.

"It's very unlikely that anyone will be likely to catch it from birds. There's been no cases from anyone worldwide catching it from a wild bird and in order to contract it you need lots of contact with infected birds and the fluids they excrete."

Jim Robertson, from the National Institutes for Biological Standards and Control - which monitors the strains of avian flu and develops vaccines - said: "There is a very low potential for humans to become infected." The overall concern was that the disease would mutate into a form that could cause a human pandemic but that risk was "not really changed by the fact that we are finding it in the UK".

It remains unclear how the mute swan contracted the disease as the species is resident to Britain and only a handful are ever thought to migrate here from the Continent.

Ornithologists said that either it was a bird displaced from central Europe in the cold spell in February or it had been in contact with another bird, a summer visitor, with the disease that had arrived in the past two weeks.

The swan could have died over the North Sea and been washed up. It was said to have been badly decomposed.

The Government has ruled out the culling of wild birds or mass vaccinations of flocks to prevent the spread of the disease into domestic poultry.

Ross Finnie, the Scottish rural affairs minister, said that vaccination required two inoculations and did not prevent birds from shedding the virus in their droppings.

"Even with that vaccination, it is not entirely clear that you can distinguish between a bird that has been vaccinated and a bird that actually has the infection," he said.

"The advice I have from the scientists and the vets is that in their very clear and unanimous opinion, it is not a method for successfully eradicating this disease should it break out in our poultry flock."

However, the Government has reserved the right to vaccinate birds selectively.

Hours before the fears of poultry farmers were confirmed, the Governments crisis management committee, Cobra, met in London, bringing together leading officials from various Whitehall departments.

These included the Department for Health, the Cabinet Office and Ben Bradshaw, the rural affairs minister, and Defra officials.

Scottish ministers also met officials in Edinburgh and Jack McConnell, the First Minister, who is in the United States, was briefed by Mr Finnie.

Understanding Avian Influenza