Monday, February 05, 2007

The Suffolk H5N1 Outbreak : Birds Died For Four Days Before Officials Were Notified

Britons Told : Don't Panic, As Hundreds Of Farm Workers Exposed To Virus

Timeline Of The Outbreak

There is some very real fury in England today as it becomes clear that the outbreak of H5N1 on a Suffolk turkey farm, that killed more than 2500 birds, had raged for at least four days before a quarantine zone was imposed around the property.

For two days, possibly three, hundreds of farm workers entered and left the infected property as the turkeys died, and there was a risk they were carrying the incredily lethal virus on their clothes and boots. They mingled with people from the local village, dined with friends and family members, and used the local supermarket.

But even worse, those workers risked a fast and terrible death simply by being exposed to the faeces and flesh of turkeys that had died from H5N1.

If these workers were then infected with the deadly virus, and were carrying other flu strains at the time, there was also a risk that H5N1 could 'breed' with another flu virus to create the theorised pandemic-ready form of bird flu in humans that could become easily transmissable.


A rough timeline of the H5N1 outbreak last week

Tuesday morning, January 30, 2007 : 71 dead birds found on the turkey farm in Suffolk.

Wednesday morning, January 31 : 186 turkeys found dead.

Thursday morning, February 1 : 860 dead birds discovered.

Friday morning, February 2 : More than a thousand more dead birds found.

Friday evening, February 2 : Veterinarians from the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs finally reach Bernard Mathews' turkey farm.

Saturday, February 3 : The European Union announces that the blood of dead turkeys from the Suffolk farm reveals the presence of the H5N1 virus, and this is the most likely cause of death for more than 2600 birds in less than 96 hours.

Saturday & Sunday, February 3 & 4 : A 2000 square kilometre quarantine zone (of varying levels of confinement) is imposed around the turkey farm, and more than 165,000 poultry birds are euthanised. The birds are gassed, their corpses incinerated.

Many of the 1000 workers from the farm are believed to recieve injections that are meant to innoculate them from the H5N1 virus.

* * * * * * * *

Even if this outbreak of H5N1 spreads no further than that one turkey farm in Suffolk, the poultry industry in the UK and the EU is already bracing for losses worth hundreds of millions of euros.

And there are serious questions being asked about the UK's much vaulted claim to being the world's leader on halting fighting the H5N1 strain of avian influenza.

As there well should be.

From the UK Independent (excerpts) :

"It's not just a national problem; people in Holland, France, and Germany will all be rather quaking in their shoes as well," said John Oxford, a professor of virology at the Queen Mary School of Medicine, yesterday.

And even if nobody dies there are likely to be dire consequences for the poultry industry as a result of the scare. A year ago a wild swan was found with H5N1 in Fife, Scotland, having died at sea and been washed ashore; in May more than 50,000 chickens were culled in Norfolk when some had the H7N3 strain. The National Farmers' Union believes these two stories cost £58m in sales of chicken and turkey meat and related products, as people played safe.

Blood from the corpses was sent down to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, one of the leading labs for such work in the world. It was here that the Turkish birds were tested, on behalf of the European Commission.

On Friday night the laboratory confirmed that it was avian flu, but did not specify the strain. Then just after 11am yesterday the news that everyone feared was confirmed in an email from the EC: it was H5N1.

"There is absolutely no need for panic or hysteria," said Conservative MEP and bird flu expert Neil Parish. But people living close to the farm, which is in open countryside a few miles from the market town of Halesworth, were shocked.

"I am worried for people who work at the factory," said Lillian Foreman, 43, of Holton. "What will happen to them? If turkeys started dying on the Tuesday why wasn't Defra notified then?"

Yesterday Defra had stopped all but essential movement in and out of the farm, and visitors were being disinfected.

Anyone with poultry within 10km (six-miles) of the farm was told to keep them inside and out of the way of wild birds, ensuring water was not shared with them. Birdwatchers at a wetlands area close to the farm were replaced by Defra officials keeping a close eye out for signs of avian flu.

Villagers were not confined to their homes, however, as they had feared. "People are coming and going as they please," said Melanie Shenton, landlady of the Lord Nelson Inn, the only pub in the village. "We've seen no officials, only loads of press."

The rest of the country wanted answers, too. Reassurances from Defra that the virus had probably been contained inside the farm and would be eradicated by the slaughter did little to prevent fears that it may yet spread.

The most pressing question, which scientists were still attempting to answer last night, was where did the virus come from and how did it get inside the turkey shed.

The migration of wild birds is the most popular official theory for how the H5N1 virus spreads around the world, although studies of migratory routes and outbreaks don't completely back this theory.

The contrary theory is that bird flu is mainly spread by the global trade in chickens, eggs, and other "poultry products" such as manure, and that it flourishes in factory farms. This view has been promoted by bird charities, which have an obvious interest in minimising the culpability of their feathered friends - but it also has some independent support.

A year ago research published in the official journal of the US National Academy of Sciences suggested that the trade was mainly to blame for the virus spreading from China to Vietnam and Indonesia, where it has killed the most people.

At around the same time a report by an international agricultural pressure group - Genetic Research Action International - concluded: "The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu is essentially a problem of industrial poultry practices. Its epicentre is the factory farms of China and Southeast Asia ... and its main vector is the transnational poultry industry, which sends the products and wastes of its farms around the world."

The report did not deny that wild birds carry the disease, but said that they have it only in a mild form before its gets into the factory farms, which are "then ideal breeding ground" for deadly strains.

The UK's biggest supermarket chain issued a statement over the weekend which read :

"Bird flu is not a food safety hazard. If there is any risk to poultry we will remove it. We would advise against any inappropriate hysteria."

They didn't specify what exactly was "appropriate hysteria".

Don't Panic, Brits Told

From the UK Independent (excerpts) :

As vets and scientists tried to trace the source of the country's first infection of the H5N1 strain of the disease, which has killed 164 people in Asia, government scientists sealed off the farm at the centre of the alert.

The emergency measures were introduced after tests by the Veterinary Laboratory Agency confirmed that more than 2,000 birds had been killed by the highly pathogenic Asian strain of the H5N1 virus, which is believed most likely to cause harm to humans.

The public was urged not to panic.

The health of farm workers and their families was being monitored, entry into the site restricted and essential visitors disinfected. Other poultry farmers within a 10km protection zone were told to keep their stock indoors and out of contact with wild flocks, while pigeon races were banned nationwide. Later Defra widened the restriction zone to cover east Suffolk and south east Norfolk.

David Miliband's Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) admitted that "the likelihood of further geographical spread of the virus is high". It is confident that it can stop the disease from moving from the farm to infect other flocks, but believes there are increasing risks of it arriving through migrating birds, the trade in live birds, and the movement of people.

From Reuters :
Britain scrambled to contain its first outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu in domestic poultry on Saturday after the virus was found at a farm run by Europe's biggest turkey producer.

"We're in new territory," National Farmers' Union Poultry Board chairman Charles Bourns told Reuters. "We've every confidence in Defra but, until we know how this disease arrived, this is a very apprehensive time for all poultry farmers."

Defra said the virus was the same pathogenic Asian strain found last month in Hungary where an outbreak among geese on a farm prompted the slaughter of thousands of birds.

That outbreak followed a relative lull in cases of H5N1 among European poultry since hundreds of turkeys died at a farm in east France about a year ago.

Avian flu expert Colin Butter of the Institute of Animal Health said the British outbreak was surprising as it had happened outside the main bird migration period.

"The next thing we need to know is if this is a primary or secondary case. If this is a secondary case, it is much more serious. If this is the first case, or 'reference case', and we can stamp it out, the outbreak will be controlled," he said.

A protection zone was established with a radius of 3 km (2 miles) and a surveillance zone of 10 km around the infected farm. Bird gatherings such as bird shows and pigeon racing were suspended nationwide.

Across the North Sea, Norway, which has had no cases of the deadly bird flu strain, responded to the news by ordering farmers to keep poultry indoors in the area south of Nordland county and banned bird gatherings, such as bird shows and competitions.

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