Monday, February 05, 2007

UK outbreak of H5N1 causes concern

Biohazard - containing Britain's birdflu outbreak

Besides UK government officials saying that an outbreak of the H5N1 virus was contained, there have been accusations that DEFRA did not act quickly enough. The outbreak occurred at a Bernard Matthews turkey farm in Holton, a small town in Suffolk in the east of England. Details have been relatively slow to emerge but it has become clear that DEFRA were informed last Thursday after 71 birds were found dead at the factory farm the previous day. It was not until Saturday, when more than 1500 birds had succumbed to the virus, that DEFRA ordered a cull. By the weekend DEFRA were undertaking the disposal of nearly 160,000 birds. The dead carcasses were then transported 320 km [200 miles] to Cheddleton, Staffordshire, a journey in excess of 5 hours. Besides concerns from local residents, government officials have said the transportation poses no risk to the general public. Dr Freda Scott-Park, a veterinary expert, told Sky News that the transportation was “completely safe”.
The serious nature of the outbreak was exemplified by the convening of the government emergency body COBRA. But besides messages from the government that every thing was under control, several countries have already banned the import of UK poultry. Russia, Ireland and Japan have all banned imports. Poultry exports amount to £370 M per annum, 80% of which are sent to EU countries. The effect on the UK poultry industry could be devastating. The discovery of a dead swan in Scotland in 2006, which was found to be infected with the H5N1 virus, cost the industry £60 M in lost trade. Late Monday, Tesco were already repording a small drop in poultry sales.
It is still unknown how the birds at the Bernard Matthews turkey farm contracted the virus, but there is the suggestion that there may be a link to another of the company’s farms in Hungary which also had a recent outbreak.
The H5N1 virus has not made headlines in the past few months, but cases still persist in the Far East. Japan, which toady imposed a ban on UK poultry imports, has themselves been victim to the virus in recent weeks. This year there have been 8 human cases of H5N1, of which 7 have already died. These cases occurred in Nigeria [1 case/fatal], Indonesia [6 cases/5 fatalities] and Egypt [1 cases/fatal]. Worldwide, there have been 271 cases of human contracted H5N1 since 2003. Of that number, 165 have died, accounting for a 61% fatality rate. There has been no confirmed case of human to human contraction of the virus to date. There is the fear the virus may mutate and cross the species barrier. Indeed there are cases that show a possible species jump. There have been several cases of cats having being infected by H5N1 [BBC / BBC].
Risks in the spread of the H5N1 virus in other animals were highlighted in February 2006 after it was confirmed that a domestic cat had died in Germany from the lethal virus. The cat which was believed to have come into contact with some swans was found dead on the Baltic island of Reugen [BBC]. The development prompted French ministers to warn pet owners not to allow their cats near areas where H5N1 had been reported [BBC]. Cats may in fact be part of the threat. According to the New Scientist, published 24th January 2007, an Indonesian scientist has found that in areas where there have been outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry and humans, 1 in 5 cats have been infected with the virus, and survived. This suggests that as outbreaks continue to flare across Asia and Africa, H5N1 will have vastly more opportunities to adapt to mammals than had been supposed. Chairul Anwar Nidom of Airlangga University in Surabaya, Indonesia, told journalists in mid January that he had taken blood samples from 500 stray cats near poultry markets in four areas of Java, including the capital, Jakarta, and one area in Sumatra, all of which have recently had outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry and people. Of these cats, 20 per cent carried antibodies to H5N1. Nidom's findings are the first to indicate what proportion of cats can become infected by H5N1. No cats have been tested in Hong Kong or China. In Bangkok, Thailand, all the cats in one household are known to have died of H5N1 in 2004. Tigers and leopards in Thai zoos also died, while in 2006 two cats near an outbreak in poultry and people in Iraq were confirmed to have died of H5N1, as were three German cats that ate wild birds. In Austria, cats were infected but remained healthy.

Related resources: / World Health Organisation

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