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Cats affected by bird flu outbreak

CATS INFECTED with the deadly bird flu virus have been found near poultry markets in Indonesia, prompting the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to say that pet cats should be monitored for signs of bird flu or avian influenza.

The announcement comes in the wake of the second – and most significant – outbreak of Avian Flu that hit the UK two weeks ago with the infection of thousands of turkeys at Bernard Matthews Turkey Farm in Suffolk.

The UN FAO said that cats, like humans, can become infected with the deadly strain of the H5N1 virus that causes avian flu, possibly from eating infected birds, or from being in very close contact with infected birds or their faeces. But they emphasize there is no evidence of a sustained cat-to-cat transmission or of cats passing the deadly strain to humans.

They mentioned that people have become alarmed by reports that cats in Indonesia have become infected with the deadly version of H5N1 from scavenging on dead and sick infected birds near markets in Java and Sumatra where H5N1 avian flu has recently been detected.

Meanwhile the US embassy in Indonesia has advised its citizens to keep away from stray cats as a precaution against becoming infected with lethal H5N1. They said that they had received confirmation of wild and stray cats carrying the deadly virus.

The FAO is advising that cats should be kept away from infected birds wherever possible. And where poultry is being raised on a commercial basis, cats should be kept indoors.

No Cat Cull

The FAO does not advise culling cats as a safety measure against the spread of lethal H5N1.
At the moment the strategy is simply to reduce the opportunity for the virus to move into a cat population on a sustained basis where it might mutate into a strain that could infect humans or cause widespread infection in the cat population.

Assistant Director-General of the FAO, Alexander Muller, commented: “Cats could act as intermediary hosts in the spread of the H5N1 virus between species,” and he added that “growth in cats might help the H5N1 virus to adapt into a more highly infectious strain that could spark an influenza pandemic”.

Also, said the FAO, culling cats would lead to a surge in the wild rat population, and vastly increase the infection rate of serious diseases that rats already pass on to humans.
Previous incidents of cats being infected have occurred over the last year in Thailand, Russia, Iraq, Turkey and other countries in the EU.

According to the FAO, findings in Indonesia in January showed that 80 per cent of the cats in the areas affected by the H5N1 outbreak were not infected. This is encouraging news because it is evidence that the virus has not found a reservoir in which to sustain itself in the cat population. “Cats are more likely to be a dead-end host for the H5N1 virus,” said FAO Animal Health Officer, Peter Roeder.

The FAO urges people in areas affected by H5N1 to be vigilant and assume that any unusual deaths in their local cat population could be due to bird flu. Roeder said that: “The observation of cats should therefore become part of surveillance systems in affected areas.”

The FAO is working with scientists in affected countries to find out exactly how the virus gets into cats, how long it stays there and what might be the most likely infection routes to other animals.
They added that it is important to distinguish between the lethal strain of H5N1, and other much milder versions. Many mammal species can be infected with the milder version of H5N1, such as pigs, cats, dogs, mice, ferrets, and rabbits.

Vaccination

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 this month’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.

Professor Van der Velden said: “There should definitely be a debate about vaccination [of poultry]. In Asia more and more countries are vaccinating. In the Netherlands we vaccinate. Its effectiveness is not proven but it should be discussed.”

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. The Netherlands vaccinates 90 per cent of each flock, leaving 10 per cent unprotected. “When the virus strikes you can see its impact. That is a clever tactic,” Professor Van der Velden said.

Hungary connection

In a recent development, it was revealed that the virus was probably brought to the UK in a delivery of turkey meat from Hungary to the Bernard Matthews poultry farm.

The company imports 37 tonnes of partly-processed turkey meat from Hungary every week but has strenuously denied bringing in any poultry from a region of the country where H5N1 was found late last month.

But the company was later confronted by the news that the DNA of the virus found in the UK is a near identical match with the recent Hungarian strain, leading Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientist, to say that infection from Hungary was the “most likely scenario”.

Bernard Matthews, a £400-million-a-year business, had claimed there “wasn’t a remote possibility” of its products being infected by the Hungarian outbreak. But since then the company has come under scrutiny for allegedly leaving processed poultry outside its sheds and for possible lapses in “bio-security” at its farm at Holton.

Ben Bradshaw, the DEFRA Animal Welfare minister, declined to comment on the alleged breaches today “because it’s possible that legal action could follow”.

Sir David said his immediate concern was to find out whether the bird flu infection, which has led to the culling of 160,000 birds, had managed to spread beyond the confines of the Bernard Matthews farm. If the virus managed to spread from partly-processed turkey meat brought from Hungary, it was necessary to find out whether it could spread from other turkey products now on their way to supermarket shelves.

“That sort of direct transfer is my biggest worry at the moment because the transfer could occur through, for example, wild animals and wild birds so the real concern now is whether or not the virus is isolated to the birds that have been culled or whether it has moved beyond that,” he said.

Bernard Matthew turkey products may have to be withdrawn from supermarket shelves in an effort to prevent bird flu from spreading.

Even though the meat, if properly cooked, poses no risk to human health the Food Standards Agency is investigating whether turkey meat infected with avian flu has entered Britain’s shops because of the risk of the disease being passed to other animals.

The agency said it was keen to remove products carrying the virus from the food chain to stop its transfer to Britain’s wild bird population.

By NICK MAYS