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06:59 - 28 February 2006

The birds are a symbol of the town around the world and councillors wanted them given the jab in advance of any possible outbreak of the disease. But when they contacted the Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), they were told no vaccine was available for such use.

Town councillor Clive Samuel said: "Dawlish is the black swans and black swans are Dawlish. If they went, this town would be up in arms. They are the town's emblem and we get people coming from all over the place to see them."

A Defra spokesman said: "We do not have vaccines, but it is on order. We have not ruled out the use of vaccines to tackle the disease, but the problem is that while it protects the birds from the disease it does not prevent birds from becoming infected and spreading virus."

Last night, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir David King, ruled out the use of currently available bird flu vaccines in the event of a UK outbreak.

Sir David said the existing H5N1 inoculation would mask signs of the virus in birds but not prevent its spread. Rare breeds of birds kept in zoos would be the only cases where vaccines would be feasible. The inoculation of organic or free range birds would not be recommended. Sir David said the UK was monitoring the development in China of a new vaccine against the H5N1 strain of avian flu. He was speaking after appearing at the National Farmers' Union Conference in Birmingham.

NFU president Tim Bennett said the union would continue to review the avian flu contingency plan.

"Certainly my poultry keepers are concerned about the fact that it is now in France and they are asking me if there is any more we can do in terms of bio-security and vaccination," he said. "If the scientists recommend vaccination we will go with vaccination. That is why we must make sure, if that is what is recommended, we can actually do it."

If avian flu did come to Britain - and he thought it was unlikely - it would not spread like foot and mouth disease had done, Sir David told the conference.

"I feel much more optimistic about the virus H5N1 not spreading in poultry than I ever did about foot and mouth disease," he said. "The disease does not spread in the same way - if one domestic poultry keeper were to go down with it, it would not follow that another would, because of the way it is spread.

"This variety of avian flu has been around since 1986 and it has only infected people who have been in very close contact with infected birds. A total of 180 people have contracted it during that time. In order to become infected you have to be physically in contact with infected birds and with their faeces."

The people who potentially could be at risk were those involved in any cull that might be ordered, he said. That was why they would be given every possible protection.

Dame Deirdre Hutton, chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency, said avian flu presented no risk to food consumers. But meat and eggs should be properly cooked before being eaten, she stressed, and anyone handling raw meat should in any case at all times wash their hands afterwards.