THE FIRST case of avian flu was officially confirmed in the UK recently when it was revealed that the carcass of a dead swan found on 29 March was carrying the virulent H5N1 strain.
However, the Government’s chief scientist sought to reassure the public about the threat from as tests were carried out on birds across Britain. Sir David King insisted there was no reason to panic after confirmation that a mute swan had died from the virus, which has caused the deaths of 108 people and millions of chickens around the world in its steady march westwards from Asia.
As emergency measures remained in force in Scotland to contain the outbreak, the Foot and Mouth epidemic in 2001 had left Britain “probably better prepared than any other nation,” Sir David said. Asked whether the arrival of the virus was a crisis, he replied: “I didn’t describe this as a crisis, no. I don’t think that one dead swan is a crisis.”
Although Sir David’s message was upbeat, there are still fears – even at government level - that the arrival of the most virulent form of bird flu could rapidly spread round the country and mutate into a form infectious between humans.
The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, said last year that in a “worst case scenario” the virus could mutate, cross the species barrier and could kill 50,000 people in Britain, while a leaked Home Office paper on mass graves for the victims of such an outbreak suggested the death toll could reach 320,000.
The Cobra committee, the UK’s emergency response team for national crises, met in Whitehall last week, chaired by Ben Bradshaw, the animal welfare minister, to discuss moves to contain the outbreak.
Emergency measures were concentrated around the village of Cellardyke, Fife, where the swan was found. More than 100 farms, containing three million chickens in a 2,500 square kilometre (965 square mile) “wild bird risk area” around the village, were urged to bring their animals indoors and to take other preventative measures.
All poultry within a three-kilometre (1.8-mile) zone around the dead bird were ordered indoors. Police were checking vehicles for chickens and turkeys.
Local shops and libraries displayed posters reminding people to keep their dogs on leads. Thousands of letters were sent to homes urging residents to ensure good hygiene. Across Britain, staff at public gardens patrolled their grounds for dead birds and zoos and wildlife parks took measures to protect their collections.
Professor John Oxford, professor of virology at Barts and the Royal London Hospital, sought to reassure the public, saying: “You wouldn’t catch this from walking past an infected bird. You would have to be touching its beak or plucking its feathers or getting yourself contaminated with droppings. The danger to humans at this stage is virtually zero. The danger for chickens and turkeys in the immediate area will be much higher.”
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs defended itself over suggestions that officials had reacted too slowly in collecting and testing the dead swan. Scientists suggested yesterday that while the Government took eight days to confirm the dead swan had died of bird flu, the results of tests could come back within hours. Defra said that the tests, among hundreds being done at the laboratory, had been complicated by the swan’s decomposition.
Britain’s leading four supermarkets - Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons - reported that the outbreak had little impact on poultry sales so far. A Tesco spokesman said: “Sales of poultry are still strong, so obviously the message is getting through to consumers that this isn’t a food safety issue. Our staff are very well briefed in answering questions from customers. As far as we are concerned it is business as usual.”
The Government’s Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey confirmed that it was testing at least 22 birds for signs of avian flu. Fourteen of the birds, including 12 swans, come from Scotland. Tests were also being done on three gulls that were found dead at a boating lake in Gloucester and a duck carcass in Edgbaston, Birmingham.
Pet Owners Urged To Take Precautions
Dogs and cats are known to be susceptible to avian flu but like humans it is hard for them to become infected. The British Veterinary Association has advised pet owners to take sensible precautions, such as keeping their dogs on leads and only taking them for walks where there is a low risk of contact with waterfowl. Cat owners were advised to keep their pets indoors because of the risk that they may catch and eat wild birds.
Although dogs and cats can die from eating infected birds, the animal death toll has been low. A stray dog was confirmed to have died of bird flu in the Caspian nation of Azerbaijan in March, whilst a stray cat in Germany was also found to have died of the virus. In both cases it is clear that the animals had eaten the remains of an infected bird and contracted the virus in this way.
Experts believe the direct risk to humans from infected wild birds is low. The virus is transmitted by direct contact with living birds or fresh droppings. One scientist said yesterday the chances of avian flu infecting someone in Britain was less than the probability of winning the Lottery. Families with young children who visit farms or parks with poultry or waterfowl are advised to follow normal hygiene procedures.
Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance called for the Government to maintain a reasonable and proportionate response to any outbreak in the UK following reports that a dead swan found in Fife has been confirmed as having the lethal strain.
Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Simon Hart, said: “The long-term impacts of the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak are still being felt in the countryside, and they were not limited to those farm businesses which were directly involved. In many cases those who suffered most were not even linked to agriculture.
“The experience of FMD could not be more relevant now and the authorities on both sides of the border must maintain a reasonable and proportionate response to any outbreaks of avian flu. Closing down large tracts of unaffected countryside could do more damage to rural communities than the disease itself.”
Animals rescued from ‘House of Horrors’
A LEADING animal charity has appealed for help in finding homes for 200 Yorkshire Terriers and 37 cats, rescued from what it called a ‘house of horror’.
Celia Hammond, the former top fashion model turned animal saviour, said her charity, the Celia Hammond Action Trust (CHAT), found the animals in appalling conditions at a house in West Sussex after the son of the deceased owner called them in.
In conjunction with Croydon Animal Samaritans, The Kit Wilson Trust and with help from other groups, CHAT rescued the dogs and cats from the horrendous conditions in the house. Nearly all were in need of urgent veterinary attention and it will take several days to clean them up and assess them properly.
“They are in a disgusting state, filthy, neglected and starving,” Hammond said. “I have been doing this work for 30 years and I have never seen anything like it before.”
Ms Hammond said the dogs had been kept in faeces-filled pet carriers, some crammed three or four to a box, in what was dubbed a “house of horror”.
“Several puppies were dead and some had been partly eaten by the others. It was awful.”
All the animals have now been removed, split between the various charities and are being cleaned up and looked after, prior to rehoming. Hammond, who quit modelling in the 1970s to devote her time to her animal charity, said they urgently needed new homes.
“When fit, the 86 dogs in our care will all be neutered, vaccinated and microchipped prior to being rehomed,” she said. “We hope prospective new owners will understand that as we visit each potential home, we will be looking for homes within a reasonable driving distance of our veterinary clinics and sanctuary.
“Thank you so much to all the people who have been so concerned and shown such compassion towards these neglected dogs and indeed the 29 cats that we took on - mainly ginger or ginger and white, very nervous and all with extra toes! We are in the process of starting to clean them up, make them happy and give them lots of cuddles and T.L.C. Seeing their frightened little faces relax a little makes everything worthwhile.” Visit the Celia Hammond Action Trust website at www.celiahammond.org/