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Second bird flu outbreak in UK

THE SECOND – and most significant – outbreak of Avian Flu hit the UK last week with the infection of thousands of turkeys at Bernard Matthews Turkey Farm in Suffolk.

Vaccination of all poultry flocks in Europe against avian flu should be considered in the wake of the outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus, a senior European public health expert warned earlier this week.

As the operation to gas and incinerate almost 160,000 birds on the Bernard Matthews farm in Holton continued, Professor Koos Van der Velden, the chairman of the European Influenza Surveillance Scheme, in Utrecht, Netherlands, said the outbreak would increase the pressure on European governments to step up counter-measures.

The UK outbreak was top of the agenda at Tuesday's routine meeting of the EU's veterinary experts in Brussels. Thirteen EU countries have been hit by avian flu since the beginning of last year and the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health - senior government vets from 27 countries - already require member states to ringfence outbreak sites and impose strict controls on the movement of poultry - as has been done in Suffolk.

UK scientists fear vaccination could mask the start of an epidemic because it reduces the infectiousness of birds and stops them dying but does not halt the spread of disease.

A wild bird carrying the virus might have entered the Bernard Matthews shed via a ventilation shaft, he said. Other experts said droppings from an infected bird falling on the concrete apron outside the shed could have been walked into it on the shoes of workers.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said there were no new reports of infected birds and the investigation into what triggered the outbreak was continuing.

Although there is a low risk of humans being infected directly with avian flu, scientists fear it could mix with a human flu and mutate to create a new pandemic strain. Ms Hewitt added: ‘It is a very remote risk.’

A stray dog died of bird flu in the Caspian nation of Azerbaijan, in March 2006, a month after two, possibly three stray cats contracted and died of the disease in Germany the previous month, no doubt from consuming the bodies of birds infected by the virus.

The World Health Organisation released a statement assuring the general public that the infection of the domestic cats with avian influenza represented ‘no new threat’ to humans. Fears that the deadly virus had mutated were allayed by the organisation, ‘While conclusions are premature... infection in cats is not considered likely to enhance the present risk to human health,’ the WHO said.

DEFRA added that most domestic animals were not at risk from Avian flu, although sensible precautions should be taken with aviary birds.