Monday, February 27, 2006

Don't panic say Euro leaders as bird flu hits

EU farm and health bosses have called on European consumers not to panic as avian flu hit an indoor turkey farm in France despite efforts to prevent its spread from wild birds. The H5 virus is certainly not tranmissable in poultry cooked at over 70 degrees C., but consumer panic is difficult to stop and poultry sales are already estimated to be 30% down in France. Large quantities of French meat have been diverted to the UK wholesale market. There has been a 20% fall in Germany, but there has been a worse hit in Italy where retailers have experienced a 70% drop in consumption. In the UK Tesco reported that there had been no decline in demand for eggs and poultry meat with the message getting through that this is not a food safety issue.

So far the only humans who have caught the virus have been in close contact with flocks not kept in modern conditions. However, the influenza virus is susceptible to mutation and it is at least possible that the avian flu could combine with human strains to create a new pandemic (an influenza pandemic is overdue in any case). Stocking vaccine might be of little help as it might not be able to counteract a new version.

Additional deaths in the UK in the event of a pandemic are estimated at least 50,000 and there would be considerable economic disruption from people failing to report for work. The food supply chain would certainly be affected. The fact of the matter is that just because we are in the 21st century there is no technological silver bullet that can stop a flu pandemic, any more than anyone could stop the pandemic that killed my grandmother at the end of the First World War.

As far as animal health is concerned, the EU has allowed France and Germany to vaccinate poultry. The decision marks the first significant application of the EU's new policy, adopted after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, of allowing selective vaccination of farm animals despite the possible impact on trade. The EU's view is that because bird flu is a global problem vaccination is unlikely to hit trade.

However, opinion on the vaccination issue is divided. Countries such as Germany believe that the advantages are outweighed by the costs (around €0.2 to €0.3 on a commercial farm) and the fear that the symptoms of the virus can simply be masked rather than eliminated.

In Britain Defra's view is that the vaccines currently available are slow to work and do not stop infected birds transmitting the disease to others. Fred Landeg, deputy chief veterinary officer at DEFRA said, 'Though these vaccines protect against the disease, they will not prevent birds from becoming infected and shedding virus. It can take up to three weeks to develop immunity, and some poultry require two doses.'

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