Wed, Feb 07, 2007 - Page 6 News List

UK's H5N1 outbreak is Europe's biggest

SLAUGHTER 59,000 turkeys were killed in an attempt to contain the bird flu virus that has many wondering if it will one day mutate and spread between human beings


Britain is confronting Europe's biggest outbreak of bird flu with a massive culling of turkeys -- and worried consumers are asking whether the disease will hit humans next.

Experts are trying to spread the word that conditions in Britain are so different from Asia and Africa that the chances of human infection is infinitesimal. They also stress that no human bird flu cases have ever been traced to eating properly cooked poultry or eggs.

"At the moment in the United Kingdom, the general public still have more chance of winning the lottery than getting bird flu," said Jim Robertson, a virologist at Britain's national institute for biological standards and control.

For Bernard Matthews PLC -- whose turkeys were infected by the H5N1 strain at its Suffolk farm -- the economic consequences could be devastating. Britain's largest poultry producer has had to slaughter 159,000 turkeys; while the company refuses to release a figure, experts say damages could run into the millions of dollars if the problem is not quickly solved.

Sales may also be hurt -- not only at Bernard Matthews, but throughout the entire poultry industry, worth an estimated ?3.4 billion (US$6.7 billion) a year in Britain.

Bernard Matthews has an annual turnover worth ?400 million, and like other poultry producers, it is now feverishly working to reassure consumers that eating fowl is safe.

Three of Britain's major supermarket chains have so far reported no change in poultry or egg sales following the H5N1 outbreak.

But previous bird flu outbreaks in Europe have hit the market hard. After a bird flu outbreak on a French farm last year, poultry consumption in France fell by 30 percent. And in Romania, which has had repeated H5N1 outbreaks, consumption dropped by nearly 80 percent.

Charles Bourns, chairman of the National Farmers' Union poultry board, urged shoppers not to boycott poultry.

"Just keep eating chicken and enjoying it," he said. "There is no danger from it. This is a disease of chickens and not of humans."

Bernard Matthews had already been shaken by criticism from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who last year called its product "turkey twizzlers" -- a kind of fried turkey jerky -- a symbol of Britain's inability to feed its children properly.

A total of 2,500 turkeys initially were killed last week by the H5N1 virus. Health authorities have imposed restriction and surveillance zones around the farm, requiring that poultry be isolated from wild birds and restricting movement in and out of the zones.

Across Britain, traditional events from falconing to pigeon racing have come under an official ban.

H5N1 remains primarily an animal disease, and has only rarely infected humans. Since the strain began circulating widely in late 2003, hundreds of millions of birds have either died or been slaughtered because of the virus, and millions of people have been exposed.

To date, 165 people have been identified as having died of H5N1, according to the World Health Organization. International public health experts believe the strain is currently the leading candidate to evolve into a form capable of igniting a human flu pandemic, which could kill millions worldwide.

While the H5N1 virus found in Britain is similar to that seen recently in Hungary -- and in Asia and Africa -- the resources available to respond to the Suffolk outbreak dramatically reduce the chances of humans getting sick.

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