07 April 2006

Country on high alert as bird flu outbreak 'inevitable'

Irish Independent

Aideen Sheehan and Allison Bray

IRELAND is on high alert following confirmation yesterday that a wild swan found dead in Scotland has tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu and six swans in Northern Ireland are being examined for the virus.

Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan said that the risk to Ireland is rising because of our "close proximity" to the UK.

However, she said that there was no need to go over the top as Ireland was highly prepared and stressed there was no risk to consumers of getting bird flu if they cooked poultry properly.

The Agriculture Department's Expert Advisory Group will meet today to discuss additional measures that might be needed to prevent or contain the disease here.

It is now "inevitable" that bird flu will spread to Ireland, given it is only a matter of miles from our coast, said Labour agriculture spokesperson Dr Mary Upton, calling for an emergency simulation of how to handle an outbreak, and an overall figurehead to coordinate the national response.

The case in Fife is the first time the deadly strain has been confirmed in a wild bird in the UK, making it the 14th country in the EU to succumb.

It could be only a matter of time before the virus reaches this country.

Bird watchers here are also being urged to keep a close eye on dead wild birds, as the Scottish outbreak has taken place at the peak of the migratory season.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland confirmed they were examining the badly decomposed remains of five swans in Portglenone, Co Antrim and one swan in Moira, Co Down for signs of avian flu.

If necessary they would test these birds for avian flu, but these examinations were routine as they had tested 20 birds since last autumn, all of which proved negative, a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, in Dublin there was an upsurge of calls to the department's avian flu helpline with 56 calls made yesterday, but there were no highly suspect dead birds being tested, a spokesman said.

Scotland's Chief Veterinary Officer Charles Milne yesterday confirmed a swan found in Cellardyke, Fife had the lethal H5N1 virus and said a surveillance zone in the area was being extended to 2,500 sq km, covering over 3m poultry.

The Irish expert group meeting today will discuss whether additional precautions along these lines should be introduced here.

Around 100 people have died from bird flu since this outbreak began three years ago, but the World Health Organisation has warned of the serious risks of a global pandemic that could kill millions if the bird flu mutates into a form that is easy for humans to catch.

Department of Agriculture Secretary General Tom Moran said they were doing everything they could to prevent and/or contain the spread of the virus here. "We're in a state of readiness. Risk assessments are now being carried out but it appears the swan was a visitor," he said.

He added that it did not have an identity tag or "ring" revealing it was indigenous to the area.

"The Department is now working with the UK authorities to put a contingency plan in place," he said, vowing that measures to stop the spread of the disease here "will be vigorous".

"We have a contingency plan in place and will apply it," he added.

However, the Government was criticised for delaying 24 hours to counter the threat by Fine Gael Agriculture spokesman Denis Naughten who demanded urgent action in light of the case in Scotland and suspect cases in Northern Ireland.

"It is also imperative that the public is given clear information on what to look out for and that there is little or no risk to the human population," he said.

Members of Birdwatch Ireland will be keeping a vigilant watch on wild birds in light of the increased threat which coincides with the migratory season, spokesman Niall Hatch said yesterday.

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