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UK's bird flu risk to increase next month

The risk of avian flu re-entering the UK will be higher between August and November when wild birds typically fly through the country during winter migration, a government report said. Outbreaks of the lethal H5N1 avian influenza strain during the Northern Hemisphere autumn in countries along wild bird flyways that overlap the UK would also increase the probability of infection, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, known as Defra, said yesterday. Governments and international health authorities are monitoring for H5N1, which has the potential to mutate into a pandemic form that may kill millions of people. Poultry deaths in Romania, scheduled to join the European Union in 2007, are raising concern that the virus is lingering in domestic and wild bird populations, Defra said. “The virus may continue to be introduced in some parts of the EU and eventually arrive in the UK because of the potential for limited mixing at some contact points between the existing wild water-bird populations from Eastern Europe with the populations in the EU,'' Defra said. A flu outbreak killing 70 million people worldwide may cause global economic losses of as much as $2 trillion, the World Bank said last week. Since late 2003, H5N1 is known to have infected at least 229 people, mainly in Asia, killing 131 of them, the World Health Organization said on July 4.

Indonesia may have recorded its 41st H5N1 fatality, after a 3-year-old girl who died yesterday tested positive for the virus by a local laboratory, I Nyoman Kandun, director general of disease control and environment at the Ministry of Health, said in a phone interview today. Samples from the girl, who lived at Tanggerang, west of the capital, Jakarta, were sent to a WHO laboratory in Hong Kong to confirm the diagnosis, he said. She may have contracted the virus from infected chickens found in her neighborhood, he said. Almost all human cases have been linked to close contact with sick or dead birds, such as children playing with them or adults butchering them or plucking feathers, according to the WHO. More than 209 million poultry have died or been culled worldwide since January 2004 because of H5N1, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said in a June 19 report. South Korea reported an outbreak of H5N1 to the World Organization for Animal Health in December 2003. Nine countries reported infections in birds the following year and seven countries in 2005. So far this year, initial outbreaks have been reported in 37 countries. The UK reported an initial infection in a dead swan found in Scotland in April. A severe winter in Russia and the Caucasus area at the end of 2005 pushed migratory birds south and westward, the FAO said. “Severe and prolonged cold weather could cause displacement of birds, with some of them arriving to the UK,'' Defra said in its working paper, written by Mirzet Sabirovic, Simon Hall, John Wilesmith, Nick Coulson and Fred Landeg. “Tools are currently being developed, based on known information of bird migration routes and abundance, to estimate this likelihood more accurately, and to assess changes in likelihood to the UK in the event of new outbreaks elsewhere,'' they said. Human avian flu fatalities have almost tripled this year as the lethal virus spread across Asia, Europe and Africa. Since January, at least 55 people have died from H5N1 strain in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq and Turkey, the WHO said. That compares with 19 fatalities in Vietnam and Cambodia in the first six months of 2005. Reports of human cases have tended to be highest during the cooler periods in the Northern Hemisphere, the WHO said in its June 30 issue of the Weekly Epidemiological Record. If this pattern continues, an increase in cases could be anticipated starting in late 2006 or early 2007, the report said. (Bloomberg)