Deadly Bird Flu Virus Found in Britain

The Associated Press
Saturday, February 3, 2007; 8:44 PM

LONDON -- Officials confirmed Saturday that the H5N1 strain of bird flu had been found in turkeys on a commercial farm _ Britain's first mass outbreak of the disease that has ravaged Asia's poultry stocks and killed more than 160 people worldwide.

The virus strain that killed about 2,500 turkeys on the British poultry farm was identified as the highly pathogenic Asian strain, similar to a virus found in Hungary in January, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

It was the first time the deadly H5N1 strain was found on a British farm.

Also on Saturday, the World Heath Organization confirmed Nigeria's first human death from the strain. Nigerian health officials on Wednesday said several people had apparently contracted the virus, including a young woman who later died.

Last month Hungarian officials killed thousands of geese after H5N1 was detected in the southeast of the country _ the first known case of the strain within the European Union since August 2006.

Britain's deputy chief veterinary officer, Fred Landeg, said all 159,000 turkeys on the affected farm in eastern England would be slaughtered. He said the virus was found in only one of 22 turkey sheds on the farm, owned by Bernard Matthews PLC, Europe's largest turkey producer.

Bird flu has killed or prompted the slaughter of millions of birds worldwide since late 2003. It has killed at least 164 people worldwide, but remains difficult for humans to catch.

Experts fear it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a global pandemic. So far, most human cases have been traced to contact with sick birds.

The English outbreak near Holton in Suffolk county, about 130 miles northeast of London, represented the first known instance of H5N1 in Britain since an infected wild swan was found in Scotland in March. Turkeys and chickens are more susceptible to H5N1 than wild birds, who can carry the virus over long distances without showing symptoms.

Television news footage showed piles of slaughtered birds being funneled into an open tractor-trailer before being taken away for incineration.

U.N. flu coordinator Dr. David Nabarro said experts had anticipated commercial flocks in Europe and elsewhere could be infected by migrating wild birds during the northern winter months.

"This virus is going to be in bird populations for years to come, and the way in which we'll deal with it is by implementing the well-rehearsed plan to stamp it out at source," he told British Broadcasting Corp. television. "We have to learn to accept that and not see it as a serious problem and just get on with normal poultry rearing and consumption."

Experts stressed the situation did not pose a public health threat, and that eating well-cooked poultry products posed no risk. However, close contact with sick birds, such as in slaughtering or plucking, could lead to the disease being transmitted.

"There is no need for immediate concern, but we do need to identify the source of the virus," said Colin Butter, a bird flu expert with the Institute of Animal Health. "If the virus has come from the wild bird population, we need to know which birds and how much of the population has been affected."

Last year, the H5N1 virus was discovered in countries in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.

Lab tests conducted by the World Health Organization in London confirmed that a 22-year-old woman was infected with H5N1 when she died on Jan. 17, Information Minister Frank Nweke Jr. said.

"It bears restating, therefore, that H5N1 is widespread and continuing in the poultry population in Nigeria," Nweke said.

© 2007 The Associated Press