Government accepts bird flu virus may soon reach UK shores

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The Independent Online

With the first confirmed case of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in France, the disease which is responsible for the deaths of more than 90 people worldwide takes a step closer to Britain.

The Government has accepted it is likely the virus will soon reach UK shores and has put in place contingency plans to deal with H5N1's spread in birds, and a possible flu pandemic in humans.

A central register for commercial keepers with 50 or more birds was established in December by the Government and bird owners were given just 12 weeks to sign up or face a £5,000 fine.

If a wild bird is found to have the disease in Britain, a two-mile exclusion zone will be set up, with a 10-mile surveillance zone around the source.

Inside the exclusion zone, all poultry movements will be halted and if any domestic birds are found to be infected the entire flock will face being culled.

Flocks might also be 'slaughtered on suspicion' if there is a strong belief they are infected with avian flu and a high likelihood the disease could spread if the birds remain alive.

Poultry may be brought inside and a national ban on flock movement introduced if bird flu is found in wild or captive birds.

While the Government is not opposed to it in practice, vaccination is not expected to be part of the control strategy, as vaccines take several weeks to take effect and immunised birds can still spread the disease.

All cases of human H5N1 so far have been in people who have directly handled sick birds, but scientists are concerned the virus will mutate into a form which can spread easily from person to person.

If that happens, a global pandemic could occur with - in a worst-case scenario - millions around the world falling ill and dying.

The UK Government is stockpiling 14.6 million courses of anti-viral drugs, which will be a key weapon in lessening the severity and length of the illness.

In the event of a pandemic, there are also plans to vaccinate the whole UK population, which would require two doses each.

Health care and key service workers are likely to be prioritised, followed by the vulnerable and those - such as children - most likely to spread the disease.

But a vaccine cannot be developed until the pandemic strain emerges, and it would be some time before the first immunisations could take place.

Should a flu pandemic occur, the Government may also consider banning mass gatherings such as concerts and football matches.