Pigeons could spark bird flu epidemic in UK

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Indy Lifestyle Online

The arrival of bird flu in Britain is almost inevitable and free-range poultryare among the many avian species that could become infected, scientists said yesterday.

Bob McCracken, the former president of the British Veterinary Association, said that if avian flu arrived in Britain, free-range hens, geese and ducks should all be brought under cover to avoid contact with wild birds.

"In the event of the infection being present in our wild bird population, there is a danger to all avian species, wild, feral and domestic," Dr McCracken said.

Government vets are bracing themselves for the possibility of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu virus arriving with migrating wild birds this spring, but up to now, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has resisted calls to order free-range poultry inside.

Nearly 300 people worldwide are known to have been infected with the H5N1 virus, and 173 have died. However, the virus is not easily transmitted from birds and there has been no proven instance of human-to-human transmission.

Dr McCracken said that as soon as it was confirmed that the first wild bird in Britain had died of avian flu it would be important to move all domestic poultry under cover. "If there is an infection with H5N1 virus in wild birds in the UK, I fail to see why domestic poultry should remain outdoors," Dr McCracken said.

Calls to keep hens, ducks and geese under cover rather than allowing them to roam outside have been resisted by the industry and the Government because it would in effect end their free-range status.

It is possible that avian flu in wild birds could be prevented from infecting domestic poultry by keeping birds undercover but Dr McCracken said that another scenario is that it could be passed between poultry houses.

If the H5N1 strain became endemic in wild birds and an outbreak was sustained for many months or even years, the future of the free-range industry may depend on vaccination, he said.

Bird flu vaccines can limit the amount of virus infected birds shed but do not prevent infection. It would also be costly to inoculate the millions of birds in the British national flock.

However, Dr McCracken said that Defra must be prepared to release vaccination stocks in the event of an emergency.