Bird flu will come to Britain, Brussels conference is told

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The Independent Online

Bob McCracken, the president of the British Veterinary Association, said that testing for the virus had to be stepped up to detect avian influenza in domestic poultry and wild birds as soon as it arrives.

"Wild birds that have migratory pathways over Europe and the UK will become infected. It is inevitable bird flu will be carried to this country by migrating birds," Dr McCracken said.

Experts fear that a highly lethal strain of avian flu - which has killed about 60 people in Asia might be brought to Europe by birds who then infect domestic free-range poultry.

"The majority of our reared birds are still intensively reared and bred in large houses that are wild-bird proof. The danger is to free-range birds and to backyard flocks," Dr McCracken said.

Yesterday, European officials met in Brussels and agreed to intensify efforts to detect bird flu by wider testing of wild birds and domestic poultry. But it rejected calls to bring free-range birds indoors, an emergency measure the Dutch government has decided to enforce.

Debbie Reynolds, the Government's chief vet, said that although there was a small risk of avian flu being introduced into Britain by wild birds, the chances of it being the highly lethal strain that affected poultry in Asia were low.

"There is a constant, low-level risk of a low-pathogenic strain being introduced, but there is no evidence that the highly pathogenic virus is spread by migrating birds," Dr Reynolds said.

Although mass deaths of migrating birds have been reported in China and in Russia east of the Ural mountains, it is possible they have been cross-infected by domestic poultry, she said. Birds infected with the H5N1 strain were probably too ill to travel very far, she explained.

Nevertheless, European experts will meet next week to discuss the scientific strategy for improving and expanding on the testing of wild birds for the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu, she said. "When we step up our surveillance across Europe we'll do it in a scientific approach," Dr Reynolds said.

Millions of domestic birds have been culled in Asia and more than a hundred people have been infected by the H5N1 strain of avian influenza virus. The concern is the virus could mutate to make it easier for person-to-person transmission, making a lethal flu pandemic almost inevitable.

This summer, the virus spread to western China, Mongolia and Siberia, where many thousands of wild birds have died after becoming infected. In Russia, the outbreak has killed about 11,000 birds and prompted officials to slaughter 127,000 others to halt the spread. No human cases have been registered.

The fear is that if the virus manages to infect wild birds living on the European side of the Ural mountains, then migrating birds from Russia could bring the virus with them when they overwinter in Britain.

Markos Kyprianou, the European commissioner for health and consumer protection, said EU countries would step up testing and improve the biosecurity of poultry farms.

"We clearly want to do our utmost to prevent the spread of this devastating epidemic to the EU. We will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure the most appropriate risk-reducing measures are in place," Mr Kyprianou said.

A meeting of an EU group in Brussels concluded there was still too little information about how the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain was transmitted to determine the extent to which it is spread by migrating birds.

The group also recommended all EU countries should review and intensify the testing of waterfowl along migration flyways.