A ban on imported chicken meat from Thailand was being considered by EU officials last night because of a possible outbreak of avian influenza in the Thai poultry industry.
David Byrne, the health commissioner, said yesterday that he was worried enough to ask Thailand's Agriculture Ministry for a written report on the situation. Britain last year imported about 36,000 tons of poultry meat from Thailand, which is the largest supplier of broiler chickens to the UK outside the EU.
Scientists are worried that the deadly strain of avian flu which is sweeping through the poultry farms and markets of South-east Asia could trigger a global epidemic of lethal human influenza, for which there would be neither vaccines nor cures.
A senior Thai politician caused consternation this week by suggesting that a Thai boy, aged seven, had caught "bird flu" but that his illness was being covered up by a government concerned over damaging one of its biggest export industries.
Japan, which imports 60 per cent of Thailand's $1.5bn (£813m) worth of poultry exports, has banned chickens from Thailand because of fears that a disease that has killed at least five people in Vietnam will spread.
Sudarat Keyuraphan, Thailand's Health Minister, today confirmed the outbreak in humans, saying: "Two cases of bird flu have been confirmed; in one boy in Suphanburi and one boy in Kanchanaburi province."
The infected patients lived near poultry farms where chickens had died, and allegedly touched the carcasses of dead birds, she added. Tests on a third person suspected of being infected with the virus in central Nakhon Sawan province had proved negative. Two other suspected cases were under surveillance.
Scientists fear that if the avian flu virus infects somebody who is already suffering from another type of flu, the two strains of viruses could integrate and mutate to produce a highly infectious and lethal strain of influenza which could then spread throughout the world.
An editorial in The Lancet, the medical journal, says that although the H5N1 strain of avian flu affecting poultry farms in South-east Asia is not yet transmissible between people, it could easily become so if the virus continued to spread among birds, increasing the chances of it jumping the "species barrier" and infecting humans.
The editorial says: "The fear is that a strain such as H5N1 might reassort with a human influenza virus to become contagious among people. In view of the high mortality of human influenza associated with this strain, the prospect of a worldwide pandemic is massively frightening. The possibility of a human pandemic with a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus must be taken very seriously indeed."
A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that avian flu was only transmitted to humans from live birds. He said: "The risk comes from touching live poultry, not from eating them. The risk, we understand, is very low from poultry meat."
There has been no trade in live poultry with Thailand for several years but if the EU decided on a ban then Britain would also do so, the spokesman added.
One of the problems of dealing with the H5N1 strain of avian flu is that it is so lethal to poultry that it cannot be grown in chicken eggs, which is how flu vaccines are usually produced. Scientists will have to use a more complicated procedure to manufacture a vaccine, which could take several months.
The H5N1 strain of avian flu first emerged in 1997 in Hong Kong, when the virus caused severe respiratory disease in 18 people, six of whom died. The Hong Kong authorities acted quickly by culling all of the territory's 1.5 million poultry. Experts believe that such prompt action may have averted a pandemic, although the prospect has now returned with further outbreaks of the virus in South Korea, Vietnam, and, possibly, Thailand.
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