Be vigilant over avian fluBird flu fears require vigilance

12 October 2005

People are being asked to ring a government helpline to report any large sightings of dead or dying birds amid fears the killer avian flu virus is heading towards the UK.

A severe form of avian influenza - called H5N1 - has affected poultry flocks and other birds in several Asian countries since 2003.

Sixty people have died from the infection and there are growing concerns the virus may mutate and cause a global pandemic.

The European Commission has banned all live bird and feather imports from Turkey after a flu outbreak there. It comes after the Turkish authorities slaughtered up to 2,000 birds in the north-west of the country in an effort to control the disease.

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) say the risk of avian influenza reaching the UK via migrating birds remains low.

However it is working closely with the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation to monitor waterbirds for the infection.

Low risk

Defra chief vet Debby Reynolds, said: 'The risk of avian influenza spreading from eastern Russia to the UK via migrating birds is still low.

'However, we have said all along that we must remain on the look out for the disease. This surveillance programme is important to maintain vigilance.'

There have been no reports of bird flu in wild or domestic birds in the UK so the risk of human infection from domestic or wild birds is extremely low.

Avian influenza A (H5N1) is most commonly spread to humans through close contact with live and dead infected birds. The virus is shed in the faeces of such birds, so contact with faeces is a possible transmission route.

The practice of thoroughly washing hands with soap and water (followed by drying) after contact with wild or domestic birds and ensuring any animal killed for meat is cooked thoroughly will help minimise the risk of infection from other diseases.

Anyone who sees unusually large groups of dead birds should call the Defra helpline on 08459-335577. They will be referred to scientific experts who will make an assessment of what further action, if any, should be taken.