Dead swans litter German island as bird flu spreads

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The Independent Online

The leader of a team recovering the birds on Germany's biggest island said he was overwhelmed by the number of dead birds.

"We need a helicopter," he said. "We are being helped by volunteers but there are not enough protective suits and face masks."

Tourists discovered the bodies of two mute swans and a goshawk in the west of the island on Wednesday. The remains were initially identified as Germany's first cases of bird flu by the country's Friedrich Loeffler research institute the same day. Forty more birds were being examined.

Officials said hundreds more dead swans littered the island's coastline, which is clogged by ice floes. They said harsh winters normally caused the deaths of swans in the region, but bird flu could not be ruled out.

The scenes on Ruegen provoked criticism from Germany's opposition parties. Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the liberal Free Democrats said: "Is it responsible to leave dead swans lying around with nobody picking them up?"

If H5N1 is suspected or confirmed in any EU country, authorities must immediately set up an inner protection zone, surrounded by a surveillance zone and an extra buffer zone.

The sizes of the protection and surveillance zones are the same for both wild birds and domestic poultry ­ 1.9 miles for the inner zone 6.3 miles for the surveillance zone.

Albert Osterhaus, chairman of the European scientific working group on avian flu, said other migratory birds are probably the main cause of the spread. "Swans fly no more than 50km a day. Looking at the way the disease has spread ­ one day it's in Italy, a day later it's in the north of Germany ­ that makes us believe that there are other bird species spreading the disease."

The virus has also been found in Austria, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria.

Dr Osterhaus added that domestic cats are also vulnerable to bird flu. While other animals may be susceptible, cats are particularly at risk from the virus because they may eat infected wild birds. Although bird flu cases in the EU have so far been limited to wild ones, veterinary specialists are drawing up plans to deal with an almost inevitable outbreak in commercial poultry holdings.

A French proposal to vaccinate some birds will present EU scientific experts with an acute dilemma when they consider it in detail next week. Though it can prevent the spread of the virus, critics argued that vaccination allows the deadly strain to take hold in flocks without detection. They added that inoculation is a complex procedure, sometimes involving three injections, and is difficult to carry out effectively.

And if vaccination is done, countries might refuse to accept live birds or poultry meat from part ­ or possibly all ­ of the EU.

The stakes are high because transmission of H5N1 to domestic flocks could devastate the EU's ¤20bn poultry and egg industry.

Germany, the Netherlands and France announced plans to bring chickens indoors to prevent contact with wild birds. Sweden and Denmark have already taken a similar step.

And Britain is increasingly likely to be hit by bird flu, the Government warned yesterday. Animal health minister Ben Bradshaw said confirmation that the disease had spread to more EU countries meant it was now more likely to reach the shores of the UK.But Mr Bradshaw said an outbreak was not inevitable. And he insisted the Government was not closing the countryside in the face of the threat.