Spread of bird flu virus is a 'national emergency'
London Times | August 26, 2005
By Simon Freeman
Veterinary experts from across Europe are meeting today to develop a strategy to stop the spread of a deadly strain of avian flu, which one British scientist has declared a national emergency.
Scientists from the other 24 member states are expected to dismiss the drastic measure adopted by the Dutch of locking up all free-range poultry, instead demanding increased surveillance of migratory birds and insisting on extra vigilance among farmers.
The EU's response to the H5N1 strain of the virus, which claimed 57 lives as it swept rapidly west across South-East Asia and has now been detected on Europe's doorstep in Siberia, has so far been fragmented.
Today, leading British scientists said that it was inevitable that the disease would be carried across the Ural mountains by migratory birds.
They believe a co-ordinated strategy is essential to prevent a potential repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 40 million - more than the First World War.
Professor John Oxford, of Queen Mary's School of Medicine, warned in January that the threat from bird flu "sent a cold shiver down the spine."
Today he went further, declaring: "This is a national emergency, how could it be otherwise? Resources are made available for natural emergencies and now many people are threatened by a virus which can decimate a country."
The two central strands to stalling the disease have been identified as stockpiling vaccines and introducing more effective surveillance measures, which will give warning of its presence at the first opportunity.
Hugh Pennington, one of Britain's leading food safety experts, said: "I've spoken to a number of senior public health officials and this is the one thing that keeps them awake at night. It's a very, very nasty virus and it would be an economical disaster if it got here, never mind the human impact.
"This is one of the nastiest potential threats we've faced for many years," he told the BBC.
The H5N1 strain of the virus, which was first detected in Hong Kong in 1997, emerged in Vietnam and Thailand in January 2004.
The virus is carried in wild birds and infects free-range poultry which mingle with wildfowl and can then be transmitted to farmers. It has so far only infected people in direct contact with birds, but the greatest fear is that it could mutate into a strain which can pass efficiently between humans, triggering a global pandemic.
In the Netherlands, where an outbreak in 2003 cost more than £100 million, all free-range chickens have been locked up. Belgium, Lithuania, Denmark and Croatia have recommended vigilance and German farmers have been told to take similar precautions by 15 September.
Many other nations - including Britain and France - are adopting a wait-and-see approach, and have advised against a mass cull of wild birds which they say would prove ineffective.
The pharmaceutical company Roche yesterday donated 3 million doses of its antiviral drug to the World Health Organisation (WHO) stockpile.
Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the WHO, said: "What we have today is a shiny new expensive fire truck. What we need to do is make sure that we have sensitive alarm system on every corner so when this virus flares up we can know about it right away."
Britain has enough drugs to treat a quarter of the population but experts argue that money would be better spent in preventing the spread of the disease rather than stockpiling cures.
The UK has about 120 million poultry, including chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, worth £1.3 billion a year. About 25 per cent of the egg-laying flock are kept outdoors and about 10 per cent of chickens raised for meat are free-range.
Dr Bob McCracken, President of the British Veterinary Association, said that it was inevitable that the virus would cross into Europe's borders, carried on the pathways of migratory birds.
He told the BBC: "Now it has spread to Russia it will undoubtedly spread over coming months and years. I don't believe that at this time the risk [in Britain] is such that one should bring poultry indoors, but the Government must ensure that we have a sensitive alarm system that will detect it at the very outset, not six months after it arrives in the UK."
Mr Pennington, who is based at the University of Aberdeen, said that it was essential to stop the virus in its tracks as soon as it is detected.
He said: "It’s doing enormous damage in the Far East at the moment, it’s got into Russia. If it got here, it would be economically disastrous, never mind the human impact, so we do need to be, I think, spending more than we have been spending.
"Surveillance is key. I don’t know if we should be scared but I think we should be putting pressure on for the resources to be made available to do the things that we know are at least going to make the problem less if it arrives," he said.
"In 1918, when we lost quarter of a million people in the UK and 40 million people worldwide, this virus that we’re talking about now could be even nastier than that."
A key item on the agenda of the meeting of EU veterinary experts in Brussels will be the Netherlands’ explanation of its controversial decision to cope with the bird flu by keeping millions of birds indoors.
"It’s not a meeting from which we expect decisions. It’s more of a meeting for information and discussion," European Commission spokesman Philip Tod said.
"Not all member states share the same analysis of the risk as the Dutch government and we know that this measure would not be possible or desirable for all of the member states," he said.
"We are following the situation closely, but we are not alarmist. Our analysis is that the risk (of bird flu spreading to the EU) is weak."