Facts about the danger of bird flu

PUBLISHED: 13:49 20 April 2006 | UPDATED: 13:23 04 May 2010

I AM writing as a member of the RSPB, the Wildlife Trust, and a voluntary member of the Ely Riverside Committee. Bird Flu is very much in the news now that it has been discovered in one mute swan in Scotland, in fact in the constituency of Sir Menzies Cam

I AM writing as a member of the RSPB, the Wildlife Trust, and a voluntary member of the Ely Riverside Committee. Bird Flu is very much in the news now that it has been discovered in one mute swan in Scotland, in fact in the constituency of Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader. As yet there is negligible danger of this disease to the human population and perhaps your readers would be interested in knowing some more facts.

As most readers will know by now, the very virulent strain of the virus which causes bird flu is the H5N1strain. It is very dangerous to birds, especially those living in close contact with other birds such as in poultry farms, but NOT, as of yet, to humans, if normal hygiene precautions are taken, such as regular hand-washing.

Most cases where humans have caught bird flu have been those workers living and working in very close contact with infected poultry, mainly in the Far East. The virus is excreted both orally and in faeces and so contact with both live and dead birds with the infection should be completely avoided. This is easily achieved by refraining from touching them with bare hands (wear rubber gloves), and not breathing in dust from them by, for example, wearing a mask.

Another virulent strain of bird flu is the H7N7 strain which was responsible for killing a large number of birds in Holland in 2003. And there are others, but again it should be stressed that bird flu is not dangerous to humans as long as normal hygiene precautions are taken. For example, do not let children touch any dead bird.

However, it is impossible to stop free roaming animals, domestic or otherwise, eating infected birds, for example. It was confirmed in Germany in March that three domestic cats had caught bird flu, on an island in the Baltic Sea. Also a Stone Marten was confirmed as having the disease at the same location.

It was assumed that they acquired the infection after feeding on infected birds. Ferrets, which are related to the Stone Marten, are a mammalian species which are susceptible to this disease, as are pigs which are also susceptible to human strains of viruses.

It is thought that some animals such as pigs together with large numbers of birds with the disease, can act as "mixing vessels", resulting in a sub-type virus which could be dangerous to humans.

Dogs can also catch the disease, according to Dr Bob McCraken, a former president of the British Veterinary Association. It is therefore essential, in order to avert any epidemic, by, amongst other measures, culling large numbers of birds at risk. Experts agree that the prompt culling of Hong Kong's entire poultry population in 1997, probably averted a pandemic.

Where the disease is found, infected farms are quarantined, avoiding transmission by mechanical means, for example on tractor wheels. Unfortunately, some viruses can survive for long periods in the environment, especially when temperatures are low.

Dr Charles Milne, the chief veterinary officer for Scotland, has said that the risk of spill-over from the wild bird population to domestic birds was extremely low.

However, Dr Bob McCraken has said that, if he were a poultry keeper, if it were possible, he would be moving his birds indoors before it became mandatory to do so.

If bird flu ever gets to our region it would probably be wise to keep domestic pets indoors or on a leash.

And what of the Muscovy ducks in Ely, the subject of the Ely Standard's front page last week? It is probably true that they are getting too numerous and this is resulting in unacceptable levels of fouling.

But they certainly are a colourful feature of the city. However, what should be done with them if bird flu ever gets here, I leave to other better qualified people to decide.

ALAN MITTINS

Haddenham

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