More birds tested in flu alert

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The Independent Online

Tests for possible bird flu are being carried out on 14 wild birds from Scotland, it was confirmed today

These include samples from 12 swans and two other species of bird.

Other tests include a study of three seagulls found dead on a Gloucester city centre boating lake.

A Defra spokesman said: "Any wild birds found dead anywhere, be they geese or swans, ducks or seagulls, are being tested at the moment.

"It's absolutely routine."

Meanwhile farming leaders will meet the Scottish Executive today as security measures against the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus are put in place.

The National Farmers' Union said a meeting has been arranged between its senior figures and Scottish rural affairs minister Ross Finnie.

It follows the confirmation of Britain's first case of the H5N1 strain yesterday, found in a dead swan in Scotland.

The bird was discovered in the harbour in the coastal village of Cellardyke, Fife.

Officials also revealed tests for possible bird flu were being carried out on 14 wild birds from Scotland.

These include samples from 12 swans and two other species of bird.

A "wild bird risk area" covering 1,000 square miles in eastern Scotland has been set up by veterinary leaders and is now in place.

It requires poultry keepers within the zone, who own an estimated 3.1 million birds, to keep their flocks under cover or separate from wild bird populations.

Authorities have come under criticism over the time it took to collect the swan after a member of the public called to report it and the time it took to confirm the results.

Last night, Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond said: "Now we have a confirmed case in Scotland we need to shorten the time needed for confirmation of test results.

"We must be able to act quickly and efficiently if we are to manage this situation effectively."

The bird had been found last Wednesday on the harbour slipway in Cellardyke but was not removed until the following day.

Criticism came from the owner of the only commercial poultry farm within the bird flu surveillance zone in Fife which has been set up.

Donald Peddie, who operates Kilduncan Poultry Farm at Kingsbarns, six miles from Cellardyke, said he first heard about the bird flu discovery on TV.

Mr Peddie said: "I think there are questions about how the information came out. I would have expected to be contacted a bit earlier."

Scotland's Chief Veterinary Officer, Charles Milne, insisted procedures were followed correctly.

He said: "The procedures were followed fully and the timeline could not have been tighter. We got the results at the earliest opportunity."

Last night, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) responded to criticism over the delay.

A spokesman said: "As the swan sample was part of our countrywide surveillance programme, preliminary work was carried out on Friday in preparation for testing on Monday.

"It is vital that test results are accurate and, because of the badly decomposed state of this sample, a number of tests were carried out.

"When the results were confirmed by the laboratory, the Department was informed of the existence of the H5 virus.

"It is important to note that since February 21 the lab at Weybridge has tested over 1,100 samples as part of our routine surveillance of the country's wild bird population.

"Again it is important to note that the lab prioritises its work in order to effectively target resources.

"The sample received on March 31 was part of this routine surveillance programme.

"There was nothing to indicate that this sample should take priority over other samples at the lab."

A 1.8-mile (3km) "protection zone" was immediately thrown up around the area, along with a "surveillance zone" of six miles (10km) after preliminary tests proved positive for the H5 strain on Wednesday.

And as the news was delivered yesterday that the bird had tested positive for H5N1, health officials said a "wild bird risk area" was being set up in a 965 square mile (2,500 sq km) area to the east of the M90 motorway and as far north as Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire.

Within this area were 175 registered poultry premises with more than 50 birds, they said.

In total, the area contains 3.1 million birds of which 260,000 are free-range.

Police checks for vehicles carrying poultry in the area will continue today.

Experts say the risk to humans is minimal.

Professor John Oxford, scientific director of Retroscreen Virology Ltd and Professor of Virology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, said: "You wouldn't catch this from walking past an infected bird. You would have to be touching its beak or plucking its feathers or getting yourself contaminated with droppings.

"The danger to humans at this stage is virtually zero. The danger for chickens and turkeys in the immediate area will be much higher."

The current outbreaks of pathogenic avian flu began in South East Asia in mid-2003.

Despite the death or destruction of an estimated 150 million birds, the H5N1 virus is now considered endemic in many parts of Indonesia and Vietnam and in some parts of Cambodia, China and Thailand.

It spread to Europe and in January 2006 two Turks were found to have been infected with H5N1 - the first human cases outside South East Asia.

There have been a total of 191 confirmed human cases of the H5N1 strain of bird flu reported to the World Health Organisation to date and 108 human deaths.

The first recorded human death was in Vietnam in February 2004.