Update on the Outbreak of Avian Influenza in UK

Published:

On 13th February 2007, the Veterinary Laboratory Agency (VLA) UK, confirmed that the laboratory analysis of the Suffolk and Hungary H5N1 avian influenza viruses is now complete.  The VLA analysis has revealed a very high similarity (99.96%) at the whole genome level between the H5N1 viruses found in the Suffolk and  Hungarian outbreaks. These results indicate that the viruses are essentially identical.  No further cases of bird flu have been found beyond those on the infected premises near Lowestoft, UK.

As required by European Union legislation, control measures were put in place around the affected premises on the evening of 1 February, and a cull of all poultry on the farm began on 3 February. The operation was completed on 5 February. Among the total of 159,000 turkeys on the farm, 2,500 were reported to have died due to avian influenza and the rest were culled.

A three-kilometre protection zone and a 10-kilometre outer surveillance zone have been imposed around the farm to prevent further spread to neighbouring flocks and farms. Within the protection and surveillance zones, poultry movement restrictions are in place, and farmed birds must be isolated from wild birds. A wider zone of 2,000 square kilometres has also been established around the protection and surveillance zones, and poultry in this zone must also be isolated from wild birds and can only be moved under license. As of Friday 16th, the ban on bird gatherings in the non-restricted parts of England has been lifted and gatherings permitted again under general licence. The ban will remain in place within the entirety of the Restricted Zone, as per the legal requirements.

In 2007, the UK is the 2nd EU Member State, along with Hungary, to report a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 in poultry.

Risk to Humans

Despite this incident, the current level of risk to humans from H5N1 has been assessed as extremely low. Nonetheless, any possibility of exposure is taken very seriously, and measures to protect the considerable number of people involved in the culling and disposal operations that may have been exposed to the virus have been put in place. Specifically, this involves the wearing of personal protective equipment and antiviral drugs and seasonal influenza vaccine being offered to those who have been in close contact with the infected poultry. Potentially exposed people have been advised to monitor their own health and report any symptoms.  The Health Protection Agency (HPA), UK has now carried out testing on a total of four people who have been involved in the avian flu outbreak on a poultry farm in Holton, Suffolk. Three workers who were tested last week all had symptoms that could indicate the possibility of avian influenza and which required further investigation according to Agency protocols. A fourth person who did not work directly with poultry was tested as a precautionary measure and received a negative result over the weekend. All the patients are now being treated under normal clinical care, or have been discharged from hospital where appropriate.

Global Context

H5N1 avian influenza remains predominantly a disease of birds. All evidence to date indicates that close contact with dead or sick birds is the principal source of human infection with the H5N1 virus. Especially risky behaviours identified include the slaughtering, de-feathering, butchering and preparation for consumption of infected birds. In a few cases, exposure to chicken faeces when children played in an area frequented by free-ranging poultry is thought to have been the source of infection. In all human cases to date there has been no evidence of efficient human-to-human transmission and human infections remain a rare event.  As of the 19th February 2007, 274 confirmed human cases and 167 (61%) deaths from avian influenza A (H5N1) have been reported to the WHO from Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. 

The advice from the Department of Agriculture and Food in Ireland is not to handle dead wild birds unless necessary. For further information please consult the Department of Agriculture and Food website. For queries relating to dead birds please contact the Department of Agriculture and Food on the Avian Influenza Hotline: 1890 252 283.

At present, recommendations on travel, personal protection and food safety remain unchanged. Current travel advice is available here. The WHO level of pandemic alert remains unchanged at phase 3. This is defined as a virus new to humans that is causing infections, but does not spread easily from one person to another. The latest updates from the WHO are available on the WHO website.

Further information on avian influenza is also available on the HPSC website.