Leading article: Suffolk is only one battle in a long global war

Share

The outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk is deeply disturbing. In terms of scale, Britain is now the centre of the worst outbreak in Europe. The relatively low-key public reaction to the eruption, however, would suggest that at last we have apparently learned not to panic. Had it occurred a year or two ago, when fears of a human pandemic were higher, the debate might have been more hysterical, leading to calls for unnecessarily draconian measures such as massive culls of wild birds as well as domestic poultry.

This time we are in calmer waters; too calm, perhaps, for there are several puzzles about the H5N1 outbreak that we must get to the bottom of before we can start to breathe easier. One is how the virus got into what is supposed to be a bio-secure environment. The last time the avian flu scare hit Britain, scientific opinion held that birds kept in the open were at greatest risk of infection. The assumption was that a small organic farm would be the likely point of contact between farmed birds and wild carriers. "Bring the birds in" was the cry. But this time the birds were in already and yet the virus got in, too.

Another mystery concerns the wildfowl that were presumably responsible for bringing the virus to the farm. The virus travels with sick migrating birds. But this is February - weeks ahead of the annual spring migration that will bring millions of ducks and geese to Britain's shores and wetlands. Of course, global warming may have thrown this pattern awry as it has so many others but it remains perplexing.

A third area of concern has nothing to do with the Suffolk farm, or the vexed question of whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) acted quickly enough last week before beginning a turkey cull. This is the spread of human deaths linked to the virus in new parts of the world.

One by-product of a growing sense of ennui about bird flu has been a relaxation in once-vigilant reporting. Yet this past year has been a busy one for the disease with about 18 people confirmed dead in connection with the virus in Egypt and one at the weekend in Nigeria.

This should ring alarm bells, for Africa could well turn out to be a far more dangerous zone for H5N1 than Asia has been. Poverty there is worse, standards of health care are lower, veterinary inspection is weaker, or in some cases lacking altogether, and governments, especially in war-torn areas, are likely to be slow to see tackling outbreaks as a priority.

While we in Britain concentrate on eradicating the latest outbreak in Suffolk, we need to keep a far closer eye on the African continent than we have been doing. As with the HIV/Aids epidemic, Africa, not Europe - let alone Suffolk - is likely to be at the centre of the storm.

It is right and proper that in this country we are learning to live with threats of pandemics and retain a sense of proportion as well as awareness that it is still only a threat. After all, the longer that H5N1 survives without mutating into a virus that transmits between humans, the less likely it is to do so. This particular form of avian flu is now about a decade old and many scientists believe that if H5N1 was going to mutate in this fashion, it would have done so already.

But when Defra has contained the disease in Suffolk, we must not fall once again into the trap of feeling that the wider threat has been dealt with. The H5N1 strain could still evolve into the pandemic that we have long dreaded and even if it does not, that "job" might fall to some other, similar, strain of avian flu. The potential for a pandemic, in other words, will still be out there and demands continued vigilance.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition