European poultry farmers on guard following bird flu discovery in Britain

Monday, February 5th 2007, 1:00 pm
By: News On 6

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ Poultry farmers around Europe were on guard Monday against the possible spread of bird flu across the North Sea from infected Britain, fearing the disease could be carried by wild birds.

Ireland, Russia and Macedonia followed Japan in banning British poultry imports, and the Netherlands and Norway ordered restrictions on commercial poultry over the weekend after the outbreak last week of the H5N1 strain of the virus, which hit poultry stocks in Asia in 2003.

About 2,500 turkeys died of the H5N1 strain on the farm owned by Bernard Matthews PLC _ Europe's largest turkey producer _ and all of the facility's 159,000 turkeys were ordered slaughtered. It was the first time H5N1 had been found on a British farm.

``I think what the public should know, not just here but around the world, is that the U.K. has very well-advanced contingency planning arrangements, that they are being followed by officials and farmers right around the country,'' British Environment Secretary David Miliband told Sky News.

The Bernard Matthews company said none of the affected birds had entered the food chain and consumers were not at risk.

Staff from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds were patrolling the Minsmere reserve near Saxmundham, the nesting area closest to the farm, and 200 other reserves around the country. The society said no problems had been detected.

In the Netherlands, which is on a major European migration path and would be particularly vulnerable to disease carried by wild birds, farmers were told to keep their birds indoors or behind chicken wire and protective netting.

The European Union's top health official warned that further outbreaks were likely in the months ahead.

``The virus is still around,'' said EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou. ``We should never feel that we are safe, in the sense of ... eradicating it, but we have a system in place, we have to remain vigilant and we have to remain ready to act.''

The H5N1 strain of bird flu can be deadly for humans, but it is difficult for people to catch it, even if they come into direct contact with infected animals.

World health experts have been tracking the H5N1 strain out of concern it could mutate into a form that is easily passed among humans and spark a flu pandemic.

The H5N1 virus has killed or prompted the slaughter of millions of birds across Asia since late 2003, and caused the deaths of at least 164 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

``We should remind ourselves that the virus is around, so we will have probably more outbreaks around the European Union in the future, like last year,'' Kyprianou said.

In France, which was hit a year ago by the lethal virus strain at a turkey farm in the southeast, Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau ordered the national food safety agency to assess the risks of another round of infection.

Bussereau said on RTL radio that France should adopt ``very strong vigilance but no panic'' in response to the British outbreak.

The appearance of the disease last month in Hungary was the first known case of the H5N1 strain within the European Union since August 2006.

Last year, the H5N1 virus was discovered in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. The World Health Organization has warned that a repeat is possible this year, encouraging countries to remain on high alert.

Also on Monday, Japanese national and local authorities held a long-planned drill to test their ability to cope with a bird flu outbreak among humans, a government official said.

Police, fire, health and other officials took part in the drill in southwestern Tokushima prefecture on the island of Shikoku, Cabinet official Kazuma Takago said. The scenario involved a man who returned from abroad infected with a variant of the deadly virus, and tested authorities' abilities to track and cope with containing the outbreak, Takago said.