Dead cat on Baltic island had contracted bird flu

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The Independent Online

Europe's bird flu crisis took on a new and potentially alarming dimension yesterday after a domestic cat discovered dead on the German Baltic Island of Ruegen was confirmed to have caught the H5N1 virus.

German scientists said the body of the cat was found on the island at the weekend near a site where more than 100 dead birds infected with the virus have been recovered since last week. It was the first recorded case in the European Union of the virus spreading to mammals.

The cat was undergoing tests yesterday at Germany's Friederich Löffler Institute to establish whether the animal was infected with the highly contagious strain of the virus found in Asia and Turkey, which has led to humans contracting the disease.

Thomas Mettenleiter, the Institute's President said: "We know from the Asian experience that cats can infect themselves with the virus if they eat contaminated birds. However, we do not know what that means for humans," he added.

News of the infected cat prompted officials in northern Germany to warn pet owners on Ruegen to keep cats inside and walk dogs on leads in public. They said that, in all previously reported cases, the only mammals to have contracted the disease were domestic cats, big cats and ferrets.

In Vietnam, three civet cats died of bird flu last August and - in October 2004 - dozens of tigers kept at a private Zoo in Thailand died after a bird flu outbreak. German scientists said yesterday that there were no recorded cases of cat-to human infection.

However, the discovery on Ruegen raised concerns about further cross-species transmission and the possibility of human infection. Hans-Dieter Klenk, a Biologist from Marburg University said yesterday that the danger to humans was greater simply because cats were mainly domestic.

"Theoretically, humans can only contract the disease if they are in very close contact with infected animals. If people see a cat with cold symptoms in the area, they should contact a vet immediately," Mr Mettenleiter said.

In Germany, the bird flu epidemic spread to southern state of Bavaria yesterday, where the corpses of two wild birds were found to contain the virus. Five of Germany's 16 federal states have recorded cases of H5N1. A total of 121 infected birds have been recovered in northern Germany.

Officials in the east German states of Saxony and Thuringia said yesterday they were increasing stocks of anti-viral drugs with the aim of inoculating 20 percent of the population in a worst-case scenario.

In Sweden, the agriculture ministry said the virus recently detected in ducks in the Oskarshahmn region, 250km south of Stockholm was a "highly pathogenic" strain of the virus that kills only birds. However the ministry said it suspected it would turn out to be H5N1, which can kill humans.

"This means we have bird flu in Sweden. It's serious but not unexpected," said Ann-Christin Nukvist, the Agriculture Minister.

In Romania, officials said samples of domestic fowl found to have the virus, were being tested for the deadly H5NI strain.

At the Paris headquarters of the World Organisation for Animal Health vets from 50 countries met for a second day to discuss ways to combat the virus.