Bird ’flu fears rise

THE last few weeks have witnessed a worldwide escalation in fears of an Avian Flu pandemic, with cases reported in Iraq, Albania and, closer to home, in Germany and Austria. But what are the real dangers of bird flu? And what kind of threat do the people

THE last few weeks have witnessed a worldwide escalation in fears of an Avian Flu pandemic, with cases reported in Iraq, Albania and, closer to home, in Germany and Austria. But what are the real dangers of bird flu? And what kind of threat do the people of East Cambridgeshire face? Are Ely's Muscovy ducks, below, safe? Reporter IAN RAY investigates.

We reported in the Standard last week that Robert Sturdy, the member of the European Parliament for our region, has called for an immediate ban on poultry from any countries with confirmed cases of bird flu.

He warned that the eastern region's farmers face a crisis if decisive action is not taken quickly.

He commented: "Almost half of the country's poultry comes from East Anglia, which I represent, and the industry would welcome this ban."

Although Mr Sturdy's approach has since been questioned, there is no doubt that the MEP was voicing the concerns of thousands of his constituents - including many in the farming community - in bringing Avian flu to the top of the political agenda.

Cambridgeshire itself has somewhere in the region of 250 poultry farmers, whose health and livelihood would be dramatically affected by an outbreak of the deadly H591 strain in this country.

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Jeremy Adams, lead officer for animal health and welfare at the county council's trading standards department, said he understood people's fears, but stressed that there are systems in place to deal with an outbreak at both national and local level.

"The message really is to stay calm - we do have contingency plans to deal with it," he said. "We would hope that we have everything in place - we enforce the legislation which regulates poultry; people with more than 50 birds on their premises must register them and we are checking. The important thing is that if we do get an outbreak we can quickly locate the poultry - it is one of the first things that the Department of Food and Rural Affairs will do."

He said that Defra has a proven track record, and that a similar strain of Avian Flu that hit Norfolk just over a decade ago was successfully contained to a single farm.

A number of our readers have written to The Standard out of concern for Ely's treasured muscovie ducks - are they at risk?

"If we get the disease they will be susceptible," he replied."There is always going to be a risk, but it is very low. We should never stop feeding the ducks, but we can take extra precautions - my advice to people who go near them to feed them is not to touch them and if you do, then wash your hands afterwards."

He said the droppings are the greatest risk, and that people should avoid contact with them.

The muscovies that greet visitors as they enter the city highlight a significant problem in the containment of bird flu - that of unregistered birds. Legislation demands that anyone with 50 birds or more must register them, but owners of smaller numbers may slip through the net. Defra makes it clear that people can and should register their birds, but it is an optimistic view that is not shared by Jim Paice, MP for South East Cambridgeshire.

"My worry is the advice given to small-scale poultry farmers," he said. "The large ones are clued up about what they need to do, but it's not the big boys, it's the tens of thousands who keep small numbers of poultry who may not see the website, who may not be on people's mailing lists - they do not know what may be required of them."

Mr Paice, who is shadow minister for agriculture, urged everyone who keeps small numbers of birds to register them, but criticised the Government's handling of the situation.

"The Government's contingency plan looks OK on paper, but what really matters is whether it works on the ground," he said. "They have a plan which they don't intend to try out until April - I've been calling for it to be tested from the beginning of January - we are lucky we don't have bird flu already."

Operation Hawthorn will see all the agencies involved deal with a mock outbreak in Norfolk, and Jeremy Adams at the county council and his team, along with colleagues in the council's civil protection team, will be attending.

Jim Paice drew a comparison with the devastating effects of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and said the Government had drawn up similar plans at the time that had not been followed through effectively.

"Farmers are immensely worried about the cost of bird flu," he said.

He also disagreed with Robert Sturdy's view that poultry from affected countries should not be imported.

"Clearly we have to be very careful about imports, but my view is that such a ban would be premature - there's no risk if the meat is cooked properly anyway," he said, adding that the issue of vaccination should be explored further.

Jeremy Adams said the guidance on reporting dead birds is clear: "If you find a number of dead birds, three to four in a group, or individual aquatic birds, such as swans, geese or ducks, report it to Defra."

INFORMATION: Contact Defra on 08459 33 55 77, or visit for more information.