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Act now to protect poultry, UK urged

James Sturcke and agencies
Monday February 20, 2006

All Britain's 180m poultry fowl should be brought indoors or vaccinated against bird flu, an expert said today as it was confirmed that nine dead swans found in Britain are being tested for signs of the disease.

Albert Osterhaus, the head of virology at the University of Rotterdam and an adviser to the Dutch government, said that since the vaccine took nearly a month to take effect, immediate action should be taken to minimise contact between poultry and the wild birds thought to carry the H5N1 virus.

"It is important to realise that migrating birds could bring in the virus, and where possible action should be taken to avoid contact [with farmed birds]. In the Netherlands, we have brought them all indoors," Dr Osterhaus told the BBC's Today programme.

"If it is not possible to bring them indoors, you should consider vaccinating them. To be effective you have to vaccinate them twice, which takes 30 days.

"I would do it as soon as possible, because the migration is just starting up. If you are fast enough, you may be able to still protect them."

France and the Netherlands have ordered all poultry indoors in recent days, and EU agriculture ministers are due to consider during a meeting in Brussels today a French request that all farmed fowl should be vaccinated against bird flu.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said nine swans had been sent for tests over the weekend after members of the public called the helpline. Two were from Bury St Edmunds, Winchester and Preston apiece; single birds were found in Shrewsbury, Thirsk and Hertfordshire.

"All the tests have so far been negative, but testing continues," he added. "Obviously, we are at a heightened level of surveillance, given the case in France."

Professor Neil Ferguson, a mathematical biologist from Imperial College London, warned that the disease could be endemic in wild bird populations for decades and called for a long-term, sustainable response.

"I think at the moment the government's response is proportionate because of the large number of animals," Prof Ferguson, who has been commissioned by Defra to model how bird flu might spread, told the BBC.

He said it would be "a little preliminary" to use a vaccine now in the UK, but said supplies should be stockpiled.

"This is a disease that does not go away, so we are going to be living with H5N1 in western Europe, I believe, in wild bird populations - even endemic in wild bird populations - for decades, perhaps.

"So we need to have a response that is sustainable in the long term and, whilst extreme precautions might seem attractive initially, I think we need to be thinking what we will be doing in 12 to 48 months' time in terms of having a sustainable policy that minimises the chance of the infection getting into domestic poultry."

The animal health minister, Ben Bradshaw, said poultry would only be kept indoors if the H5N1 strain of bird flu reached the UK.

"Our contingency plan, which we have had in place for several years, is that we would only order the housing of birds if there was an outbreak in this country. We are certainly thinking about it, and poultry keepers are ready to do it within 24 hours if we give the order.

"But it's worth remembering that the Netherlands and Germany both unnecessarily housed their birds in September last year at great expense, only to later let them out again."

EU agriculture ministers were this afternoon due to debate growing demands for an immediate programme of "preventive vaccination" against bird flu.

The controversial proposal, which risks costing farmers their export markets, is already on the agenda at a separate meeting tomorrow of national bird flu experts from the 25 EU member states.

France requested the move last week, before becoming the seventh EU country affected by the current spread of the virus. The Netherlands, which has previous experience of bird flu, backs the idea.

European commission officials warned last week that Europe-wide vaccination of poultry may not work.

The same doubts will be voiced by the Defra secretary, Margaret Beckett, at today's talks amid government assurances that the department already has effective countermeasures in place to take effect if and when the deadly H5N1 strain is confirmed in Britain.

"We have nothing against vaccination in principle," a government spokesman said, "but we are not convinced that the scientific knowledge is there to prove it would work."

This afternoon the French health minister, Xavier Bertrand, urged people to stay calm and keep eating poultry. The government had set aside 730m (#500m) to fight the disease, and no farms in the country, Europe's largest poultry producer, had been hit by the virus, he said.

Bosnian officials reported their first cases of bird flu today, in two swans, but said further tests were required to establish whether the birds had died of the H5N1 strain of the virus.

The Malaysian government announced that 40 chickens died last week of H5N1 flu in the first reported cases of the virus in the country in more than a year.

More cases were also reported in India, Egypt and Hungary.