Bird flu: the species you should really fear

As the danger of a pandemic grows, Britain is woefully ill-prepared, says Geoffrey Lean
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The Independent Online

Britain faces an unprecedented airborne assault on two fronts over the next three months, as migratory birds infected with the deadly flu virus threaten to fly in from Europe and Africa.

Yet an Independent on Sunday investigation shows that the country is poorly prepared to counter the danger, which last night reached eastern France, within just 400 miles of southern England.

It is also unprepared for a far greater danger: that the virus will mutate so that it can spread rapidly between humans, sparking a global pandemic that could kill more than 140 million people. That would make human beings much the most dangerous species of all, spreading the disease rapidly around the world through air travel.

The French government last night confirmed that a dead wild duck found near Lyon did have the killer H5N1 strain - after the virus had spread through six other European Union countries in a week. It is the first case of the virus in France. Experts say that cold weather could send birds carrying it across the Channel.

A swan in Vienna was also found to have the disease, while the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra said it had been found on 52 farms, in the subcontinent's first outbreak. The virus is also spreading in Nigeria, from where birds will start to migrate to Britain in April. There are also fears that it could be brought in by imported poultry or pet birds.

Last week's rapid spread across Europe caught experts and governments unawares as birds carried the disease to Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia. As exclusively predicted in The Independent on Sunday in November, they are being driven westwards by abnormally cold weather, especially in Russia and Ukraine.

Officials in the Netherlands will ask the European Commission for permission to vaccinate six million chickens and other poultry against the disease. Government advisers say that if there was another cold snap, they could then be driven to Britain.

Most of the infected birds so far identified are swans, which rarely reach Britain from Europe. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds believes that their deaths may merely be the ones being noticed because they are "big and white", and that ducks such as widgeon and pochard, which do come here, may be doing more to spread the disease. The main danger from them will last until March, when the weather should warm up and the birds start migrating back to Siberia.

Over the following two months, the second threat will kick in, as waterfowl start to arrive from Africa. Nigeria, where the virus is spreading after being identified 10 days ago, is on a migratory crossroads, hosting birds - such as garganey and wood sandpiper - that will soon set off for Britain, as well as others that are believed to have brought the virus from Russia.

The sub-type of the H5N1 virus in Nigeria is almost identical to one first identified last summer in north-west China. It has since been traced through Russia and Turkey, and has an alarming trait that makes it susceptible to passing from birds to people.

Bird charities are worried that the crisis may turn people against waterfowl, and say the disease is most likely to have been spread by international trade in infected poultry. Leon Bennun, the director of science, policy and information for BirdLife International, says that outbreaks "have often followed major trade routes". Nigeria imports chickens from both Turkey and China. But most experts believe that wild birds are the main carriers.

Whichever is right, the danger is that poultry flocks will be infected, bringing the virus nearer to people. In fact, H5N1 has already been found in Britain, where it was discovered last October in pet birds in quarantine in Essex. Originally, ministers said it had been identified in a parrot, but had to confess that a mesia finch was to blame; samples from the two birds had been mixed up.

The wild bird trade was banned across Europe, giving customs officials more time to concentrate on searching for illegally imported birds. As yet the virus is still mainly a bird disease. Around 160 people are known to have caught it worldwide as yet, although an alarmingly high proportion- over half - have died. The real crisis will come when the virus mutates, as experts believe is inevitable, so that it can spread rapidly from person to person.

World Health Organisation officials say that more than 140 million people could die worldwide: the Government believes up to 750,000 could perish in Britain.

There are big holes in Britain's defences against both forms of the disease. Ministers are refusing to order poultry to be kept indoors, though France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic have all done so. They hint that they might change their mind after the virus has arrived in Britain. Even then, poultry keepers will only be obliged to comply where "practicable", and allowed to decide this for themselves, so making enforcement impossible.

The Government has also been tardy in holding its first full bird flu exercise. The two-day Exercise Hawthorn - designed to "test the strategic response to a disease outbreak" across government - will begin only on 5 April, when the migratory season will already be under way, and will not report until the summer. Tory agriculture spokesman Jim Paice attacked the Government's "leisurely timetable", and says that the exercise should start immediately "so that the current state of readiness can be assessed and improved before the threat increases".

The more the bird disease spreads, the greater the chance that the virus will mutate to cause a human pandemic. But the Government still has fewer than half the 14.6 million doses of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu it ordered to tackle an outbreak one - and the House of Lords committee on science and technology has suggested that this may be too few. It has also yet to sign contracts for an order it announced last August for two to three million doses of a vaccine to protect health workers and other vital services.

The committee concluded that, though government plans for fighting a pandemic look good on paper, an "enormous amount" still needs to be done to put them into practice. It was "particularly alarmed at the risk of serious disruption to food supplies" as lorry drivers and supermarket shelf-stackers became ill.

Professor Jim Norton, a director of the Institute of Directors, told the committee of the danger of "cascades of failures" where the loss of power could cause other vital services to collapse, including mobile phone networks. Top medical experts say that the reorganisation of primary care trusts is causing "utter chaos and confusion" just when their doctors and nurses face up to a possible pandemic.

The Government formally dismissed the committee's criticisms on Thursday. It said: "A considerable amount of work has been going on across central and local government and the NHS to prepare for a pandemic."

HOW IT SPREAD

1996 H5N1 virus first identified in a goose in China.

1997 Kills six people in Hong Kong. Its entire population of 1.5 million chickens slaughtered in three days. Virus disappears.

2003 Re-emerges and spreads in South-east Asia.

2004 Human cases reported in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. World Health Organisation warns of possible pandemic.

Summer 2005 Mass deaths of birds at a migratory hub in north-west China. Birds carry the virus as they fly through Russia.

October 2005 The virus reaches Turkey and then Romania. Imported finches with the virus found in quarantine in Essex.

January 2005 First human cases found in Turkey. Four children die.

February 2006 Virus spreading worldwide. Found in birds in Nigeria, Egypt and India - and moving rapidly through Europe.

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