Scottish swan killed by H5 strain of avian flu

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The Independent Online

A three kilometre exclusion zone was thrown round an area of central Scotland last night after tests confirmed a dead swan discovered in Fife was carrying a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu.

It is the first time that any evidence of the H5 strain has been found among indigenous birds in Britain prompting the authorities both sides of the border to instigate emergency procedures.

"The exact strain of the virus is not yet known, tests are continuing and a further result is expected on Thursday," said a spokesman for the Scottish Executive last night. "In accordance with a recent EU decision the Scottish Executive is putting in place a Protection Zone of a minimum of 3km radius and a Surveillance Zone of 10km."

Keepers of birds in the protection zone are being instructed to isolate their birds from wild birds, by taking them indoors wherever possible. Measures to restrict the movement of poultry, eggs and poultry products from these zones are also being brought into effect immediately.

"While the disease has yet to be confirmed, this is an important development," said Charles Milne, Chief Veterinary Officer for Scotland.

"Bird keepers outside the protection zone should redouble their efforts to prepare for bringing their birds indoors if that becomes necessary. They must also review their biosecurity measures to ensure that all possible precautions have been taken."

The Scottish poultry industry produces 127,000 tons of meat and 740 million eggs a year - discovery of the virus could have a devastating effect on the industry even though there are not thought to be any poultry farms close to where the swan was found.

James Withers, deputy chief executive of NFU Scotland, described the discovery as "extremely concerning". He said: "As we have watched the disease get closer, we have waited for this day to come but that doesn't make it any less worrying."

"It has been found in a wild bird but there is no evidence of it in the farmed population. The lessons from Europe are that it will not infect the farmed population."

It is understood the partially decomposed corpse of the swan was found on the foreshore of Cellardyke, a small coastal town in Fife, nine miles from St Andrews.

Last night locals in Cellardyke expressed alarm at the discovery and what it could mean to the economy of the area. "I am rather surprised, if not shocked," said Martin Dibley, a community councillor.

"We have a lot of farmland and farms in the area but I've not heard of too many swans. I am surprised at it being a swan and will be interested to know how it got here.

"We are about nine miles from St Andrews and have a community of about 4,000 in the East Neuk of Fife. It's mainly small fishing villages and we have an income from tourism."

As soon as preliminary tests on the dead swan confirmed it had been carrying the H5 strain of the virus the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer, Debby Reynolds, immediately called an end to Exercise Hawthorn, a country-wide exercise for avian flu, which started on Wednesday and was expected to continue today (Thursday). "I brought to an end the national avian influenza exercise to ensure that we can bring all our resources to bear on this situation," she said last night.

"We are already in a high state of readiness and I have every confidence that officials north and south of the border will work together to manage this incident successfully."

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, in whose constituency the bird was found, said he would follow the situation "very closely". He said: "I have spoken directly to the minister, Ben Bradshaw, and I have his assurance that all necessary steps will be taken and that there is no health risk to humans."

Shadow rural affairs secretary Peter Ainsworth said: "This is a potentially serious development. Even though the circumstances in this case look unusual, the arrival of bird flu in the UK is not entirely unexpected.

Tests were still being carried out on the bird at the EU's bird flu laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey and final results are not expected until later today.

However, a spokesman for the Scottish Executive said if the strain was confirmed as H5N1 there may be further restrictions put in place, such as housing and movement controls.

"While highly pathogenic avian influenza has been found, the full type is not yet known at this stage," he said.

"There is no reason for public health concern.

"Avian influenza is a disease of birds and while it can pass very rarely and with difficulty to humans this requires extremely close contact with infected birds, particularly faeces."

So far, the H5NI strain of the virus has been said to have killed more than 100 people worldwide - mostly those who were directly involved in slaughtering or handling carcases of infected poultry.

However, experts fear that if the strain were to mutate so as to be able to pass from human to human then it could cause a pandemic resulting in the deaths of millions of people worldwide.

If confirmed as H5N1, it would make Britain the 13th country to report an outbreak of the virus - Denmark reported a case last month.

"Over the past few weeks we've seen swans and other birds dying in Western Europe and being found to have this virus, H5N1, on board so, it's quite to be expected you have a case appearing in Scotland," said Dr David Nabarro, the UN bird flu co-ordinator.

Deadly flu's journey to Britain

1997 First case of H5N1 detected in a human in Hong Kong. The virus affects 18 patients, with six deaths. Within three days, every chicken is culled

DECEMBER 2003 South Korea announces a highly contagious strain of bird flu has infected a chicken farm near Seoul

JANUARY 2004 Eight people in Thailand and Vietnam die of H5N1

MARCH 2004 In south-east Asia, 34 cases of the disease are confirmed in humans, 23 die

AUGUST 2004 H5N1 infects pigs in China. Three more deaths from the virus are announced in Vietnam

SEPTEMBER 2004 Thailand announces suspected case of bird flu passing between humans

DECEMBER 2004 Death toll in Vietnam and Thailand reaches 32

JULY 2005 Outbreak in Kazakhstan marks the first outside South-East Asia. First case in Indonesia found in an 8-year-old girl. Russia confirms outbreak

8 OCTOBER Turkey finds first case of bird flu

10 OCTOBER Brussels bans imports of poultry and feathers from Turkey to the EU after 1,870 birds die

16 OCTOBER Three ducks found dead in the Romanian Danube delta

21 OCTOBER Croatia confirms first suspected case in swans. Parrot imported to Britain from Suriname diagnosed with deadly H5N1 strain

25 OCTOBER Several birds quarantined in Britain died of bird flu

5 JANUARY 2006 A 14-year-old boy dies of the H5N1 strain in Turkey, the first death in Europe

16 JANUARY 12-year-old Turkish girl dies after showing symptoms of the deadly H5N1 strain

12 FEBRUARY Tests confirm two swans found dead in Italy had H5N1

13 FEBRUARY A dead swan close to the Austrian border, near Maribor, is killed by H5 strain

15 FEBRUARY 2006 Dead swans found off the Baltic Sea confirmed with bird flu. Germany has its first outbreak of H5 flu.

20 FEBRUARY H5N1 strain of bird flu is found in a wild duck in France

1 MARCH The death of a cat in Germany from the virus raises fears bird flu can be passed to humans

5 APRIL First case of H5N1 is confirmed in Germany. Dead swan in Scotland confirmed to have H5 strain - the first case in the UK. Scientists will announce today whether it is the deadly H5N1 strain.