Department plays down risk of bird flu spreading to Ireland

AS FEARS grow of bird flu spreading to Europe, Department of Agriculture vets have said that the risk to Ireland remains low and they are monitoring poultry closely.

A strain of the potentially fatal H5N1 virus, which infects poultry, has already spread into Russia and Kazakhstan and could reach Europe if it were to spread with migratory birds.

Dutch authorities have responded by keeping all their chickens indoors so they can't pick up the virus from wild fowl.

The British Veterinary Association has also warned that its arrival in Britain is "inevitable" due to migrating birds.

Vets from this country attended a meeting in Brussels yesterday where European poultry controls were under discussion but where much of the debate was taken up by the controversial Dutch moves.

With a fatality rate of 76%, the H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed more than 60 people in Asia, the majority in Vietnam, since 2003. It also decimated the Asian poultry industry.

The Department of Agriculture's Superintendent Veterinary Inspector, Sally Gaynor, said the worries centred around whether the flu could come to these shores through migratory birds.

"Their role in spreading Avian flu is by no means confirmed however. At the moment, we can't recommend keeping free range birds for months on end but the picture is under constant review," she said.

According to the department, the Dutch gave a lot of information to their European partners on why they had taken this measure but there is no plan for any other member state to follow suit.

"If the flu was found in France or the UK, this advice would probably change but we have ongoing surveillance of poultry and wild birds. We also have a warning system in place to detect increased deaths in migratory birds and we maintain close contact with the Department of Health and the poultry industry," Ms Gaynor added.

Sinn Féin MEP Mary Lou McDonald called on Tánaiste and Minister for Health Mary Harney to hold a meeting with her Northern counterpart, Shaun Woodward, to address joint measures to tackle a potential outbreak.

The Department of Health has already ordered 200,000 doses of a bird flu vaccine which would protect frontline emergency and medical staff in the event of an emergency.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the IFA Poultry Committee, Alan Graham, yesterday said that he did not believe there was a "big risk" at present but if the flu was detected in Britain, "it would be time to worry".

What is avian flu?

Avian flu is a contagious disease caused by the influenza A virus, which is very similar to the human influenza A virus that affects thousands of people every year. While all bird species are thought to be susceptible to avian flu, the disease is particularly devastating among domestic poultry, where it can reach epidemic proportions and result in a high bird death rate. This extremely virulent form is known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI.

How is it spread?

The virus spreads between birds through the inhalation of contaminated airborne droplets or contact with contaminated droppings. A single gram of contaminated faeces can contain enough virus to infect a million birds. People are usually infected through close contact with live infected birds. In very rare instances, the virus can also be transmitted from person to person, but so far such transmission has resulted only in one-off cases.

What are the symptoms in humans?

They include flu-like fever, coughs, sore throats and muscle ache as well as more serious conditions of eye infections, pneumonia and severe respiratory diseases.

What is the risk of bird flu spreading to Ireland?

Controls are in place and the situation is being monitored. It remains a very remote possibility that the virus in its current form could be introduced to poultry in Ireland.

People have spoken of a pandemic? Is there really such a risk?

Many experts fear that if the avian virus is able to pass easily from person to person, it would signal the start of an influenza pandemic. This is because avian and human flu viruses, both of which are currently circulating in Asia, can exchange genes when a person or animal is infected with viruses from both species at the same time.

This process of gene swapping could lead to the emergence of a new subtype, with sufficient human genes to enable the virus to pass easily from person to person.

What is the best treatment?

Vaccines to prevent the virus spreading to humans are under development.

Recently, pharmaceutical giant Roche donated 30 million doses of drugs to help combat a flu pandemic to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO director general Lee Jong Wook said the antiviral Tamiflu donation was a critical early step in helping to deal with an outbreak at its origin and slow down its spread.

There has been criticism of the Government for not stockpiling enough flu vaccine to combat the virus if a pandemic breaks out but experts have insisted a jab cannot be developed until the exact strain is known.

The vaccines would be used to protect key medical and emergency workers against a possible global pandemic.

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