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More birds tested for deadly flu

BBC | April 7 2006

Tests are being carried out on more birds after Britain's first case of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu was found in a dead swan in Scotland.

Scottish rural affairs minister Ross Finnie said they were dealing with the case in "proportion" and did not want to "turn a drama into a crisis".

Experts are warning the swan is unlikely to prove an isolated case.

Surveillance zones are being enforced around Cellardyke, Fife, where the dead swan was found eight days ago.

Mr Finnie told a press conference: "One thing we are trying very hard to do, to borrow that insurance phrase, is 'not turn a drama into a crisis'."

He also said Scotland's First Minister Jack McConnell would continue a visit to New York rather than returning in "haste".

He said this was "right and proper" as Mr McConnell did not want to inadvertently give the impression that Scotland was in a major "disease situation" and thus damage the tourism industry.

On Friday Cobra - the government committee which leads responses to national crises - met to review measures being taken.

Speaking afterwards rural affairs minister Ben Bradshaw praised the work of the scientists, police and vets in responding to the situation.

The Scottish National Party is calling for the tests to be speeded up after it emerged it took more than a week for the first case to be confirmed.

Mutation fears

Meanwhile, talks are to be held between farmers' leaders and the Scottish Executive on how to contain bird flu.

Friday's meeting will be between Agriculture Minister Ross Finnie and officials from the National Farmers Union, Scotland.

The H5N1 virus does not at present pose a large-scale threat to humans, as it cannot pass easily from one person to another.

But experts fear the virus could mutate to gain this ability, and in its new form trigger a flu pandemic, potentially putting millions of human lives at risk.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond said it was important to "shorten the time needed for confirmation of test results".

"We must be able to act quickly and efficiently if we are to manage this situation effectively," he said.

The Scottish Executive has extended surveillance zones in Scotland to include 175 properties with 3.1 million birds, as well as free-range poultry. About 48 are free-range premises with 260,000 birds.

An initial 1.8 mile (3km) protection zone was set up around Cellardyke on Wednesday, surrounded by a six-mile (10km) surveillance zone.

Farmers in the affected area are being ordered to house their birds where possible, or separate them from wild birds and gatherings of birds are prohibited.

Restrictions on the movement of poultry, eggs and other poultry products have been implemented.

Some experts are calling for a programme of poultry vaccination to be introduced should a cluster of cases emerge.

There are 14 birds being tested for bird flu from Scotland include 12 swans and two other species.

'More cases possible'

Scotland's Chief Veterinary Officer Charles Milne said there was no indication that any of these would turn out positive.

Three dead seagulls found at a boating lake in Gloucester are also being tested for the disease. A city council spokesman said they were being tested as a precaution and the risk of the gulls having died of bird flu was "minimal".

However, Professor Albert Osterhaus, who advised on measures for a mass outbreak of the virus in the Netherlands three years ago, said it was a strong possibility that more cases would be found.

Ex-head of the British Veterinary Association, Dr Bob McCracken, said he found it "difficult to accept" there would not be more cases.

Patrick Holden, of the Soil Association, said if there were a cluster of outbreaks, a "plan B" approach should involve vaccination.

But John Kinnaird, President of the National Farmers' Union in Scotland, urged people to remain calm.

He said it was important to keep the situation in perspective.

"At the moment it's been found in one wild bird; and we have to maintain all possible vigilance and hope that's where it stays. And it is quite unusual to pass from a wild bird into farmed poultry."

Sean Rickard, a government adviser on agriculture, warned the effects of a widespread outbreak could be devastating for the poultry industry.

"If people pull away from consuming poultry, it's not like beef where it can be eighteen months, from birth to slaughter. For chickens, it's a matter of weeks; and the industry is incredibly vulnerable to an adverse reaction by consumers."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responded to criticism over the delay in dealing with the dead swan by saying there had been no reason to suggest it should be given priority over other samples.

It said preliminary work was carried out on Friday in preparation for testing on Monday and the test lab was always open for suspected infected samples.

"It is vital that test results are accurate and, because of the badly decomposed state of this sample, a number of tests were carried out."

Defra said that since 21 February the laboratory at Weybridge had tested more than 1,100 samples.


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