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on June 30, 2009

Web Exclusive: Russia tries to outrun H5N1

Russian authorities say the recent outbreaks of H5N1 stem from a single live market and are now moving quickly to keep it from spreading.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (AI) – H5N1 – has tightened its grip on Moskovskaya Oblast (Moscow region). Towns and villages in Moscow districts like Volokolamsk, Naro-Fominisk, Odintsovo and Dmitrov now facing outbreaks of H5N1 withstood some of the fiercest battles of the Second World War. By 20 February 2007, H5N1 was confirmed in 9 districts/towns of Moscow Region: Dmitrov, Domodedvo, Naro-Fominsk, Odintsovo, Podolsky, Ramenskoye, Taldom, Volokolamsk and Zvenigorod.

Russian authorities announced and confirmed outbreaks quickly and traced them back to the ‘Pitchka’ (‘Birdie’) section of the Sadovod Market Complex just south- east of the Moscow Ring Road. But they are now moving quickly (perhaps too quickly) to downplay the outbreak and claim it is virtually ‘all over’.

Given market reaction to poultry after first H5N1 outbreaks in July 2005 to early 2006, it is easy to see why Russian authorities want to consign the 2007 outbreak to the history books. Russian poultry production fell significantly in the second half of 2005 and into 2006, but bounced back with consumption up four percent by June 2006, after the outbreaks ceased and fears receded.

Figures released by leading Russian meat producer Cherkizova support these trends. Poultry prices were up seven percent in the second half of 2006 and back to the high pre-H5N1 levels reigning before July 2005.

Confident comments were made at the time by Vladimir Fisin, President of Rosselkhoznador (animal and plant health watchdog). “The data received proves the crisis caused by avian influenza has been overcome and the situation fully resolved”, he said. In light of the current situation, the statement now seems premature but the same kind of optimism is oozing out again from officials dealing with the problem.

Nikolai Vlasov, veterinary supervision head of Rosselkhoznador told TASS that economic losses from outbreaks in Moscow Region were infinitesimal and that no yard had more than 50 infected birds. The nine infected settlements have a combined stock of some 5000 chickens but fewer than 450 in total died or were culled, and this seems on the conservative side given the number and spread of infection foci.

Small losses incurred make comments from Valery Sitnikov (Chief Vet for Moscow Region), and reported by TASS news agency, all the more surprising. Poultry owners losing birds to AI or through culling will only receive compensation if they have met all veterinary regulations, he said. This includes quarantining bird purchases in separate cages before allowing them to mix with existing flocks.

Sitnikov told TASS that no new poultry deaths occurring in the region after 22 February would indicate the bird ‘flu epidemic to be over. These assumptions he said are based on an incubation period lasting up to four days, and because the bird section at the Sadovod Market complex was closed by 18 February. But the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) indicates that the incubation period may last a lot longer, depending on all sorts of factors including virus strain, host and environment. OIE advises a 21-day maximum.

When Russia confirmed H5N1 outbreaks in 2005, the United Kingdom was one of the countries to place a temporary ban on imports of all Russian poultry products, including meat, eggs and feathers. DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural affairs) in the UK used 21 days as the maximum incubation period, and double this (42 days) as the risk period when considering duration of the ban.

On 19 February this year, Olga Gavrilenko Chief Sanitary Inspector in ‘Rospotrebnadzor’ (consumer rights group) for the Moscow region told the press that there were no confirmed or suspected cases of AI among people in the region, although thousands of citizens have been medically monitored for disease. Two days later, the Russian tabloid newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported a male Russian farmer and his mother from Ramsenskoye (40km south-east of Moscow) taken to hospital with suspected bird ‘flu. The farmer purchased a turkey at a Moscow market on 13 February. It died suddenly on 17 February, after which his geese began to sicken and all were dead by 20 February, when he and his mother became ill.

The ‘Pitchka’ (bird) market has a chequered history being moved from its original site nearer to the city centre in 2002 due to health and hygiene problems. According to the St Petersburg Times, health and hygiene checks and controls are tight for traders inside the bird market but not for those just outside who trade without any government intervention. Only the bird section of the market complex is closed with other parts that sell mammals including cats and dogs trading as normal.

Moscow is not yet surrounded by H5N1 because none of these outbreaks is in the eastern hinterland of the city. Authorities say the outbreaks have all been traced to the ‘Pitchka’ section at the Sadovod Market complex, but appraisal of outbreaks in the Moscow region, alongside others outside, reveals a distinct pattern.

The rash of infections in the north Caucasus of southern Russia (Krasnodar Adgeya and Kalmykia regions) followed by one in Kaluga region bordering Moscow in the south-west lends support to disease winging its way northwards into Russia on migratory birds from the Black Sea region.

Bird migration this far north would not normally be expected until spring but the European winter has been exceptionally mild in 2006/07.

Russian authorities are firm in their convictions about the central role of ‘Pitchka’ market but how did H5N1 get there in the first place? Russia’s veterinary services suspect it was transported into the Moscow region on exotic birds illegally imported from Azerbaijan, Iran or Krasnodar in the north Caucasus.

Irrespective of its source, H5N1 moved quickly into and around the region of Moscow. The government is naturally keen to protect commercial poultry farms and markets but appears to be unnecessarily playing down a potentially serious situation. They seem too anxious to announce the demise of a disease with reputations for coming back to ‘bite’ those who speak too soon.

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