The outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza virus on a farm in eastern Germany announced on Oct. 9, 2008, was received with shock and horror by the German authorities. But is it all that surprising the virus has revisited German poultry after a nine month gap? Considering the long series of outbreaks suffered by Germany and eastern neighbours Czech Republic and Poland during the second half of 2007, it is not surprising at all. Many of these episodes were recorded in wild birds so it is most likely that the virus has never left the region.

Routine examination reveals bird flu 

Officials in the eastern-most German state of Sachsen (Saxony) said the H5N1 virus was identified in ducks during routine testing. The farm is near Dresden in the state’s eastern-most district of Görlitz that borders Poland and the Czech Republic. The farm houses well over 1,000 birds, most of which are turkeys and geese, said a report by Deutsche Welle . Germany's national animal health laboratory on the Baltic island of Riems said the find was somewhat surprising, because the last outbreak was in December 2007 and the infection alert reduced accordingly.

A New Zealand news agency, clearly primed by its own recent brush with bird flu (low path), was one of the first to report on this new outbreak thousands of miles away in Germany. Ralph Schreiber, spokesman for Sachsen's social welfare ministry, said tests were being carried out to determine whether it was a highly pathogenic strain of the H5N1 virus. He said the H5N1 subtype was detected in a duck during a routine examination at the farm, which held approximately 1,400 birds. All birds at the farm would be killed as a precaution and access to the farm was blocked off, said Schreiber, according to a report by TVNZ quoting Reuters.

Evidence points to wild birds

On top of the six outbreaks in poultry in the second half of 2007 listed in Table 1, including two where almost 350,000 ducks were lost, the German authorities reported more than 320 wild birds found dead and testing positive for H5N1 HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza). Virtually all the episodes of H5N1 in wild birds occurred on the eastern side of the country in the states of Thuringia, Sachsen-Anhalt, and Sachsen, where this latest farm outbreak occurred.

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Within the same time frame (June to August 2007), there were five outbreaks in the Czech Republic leading to the loss of over 100,000 birds. These were accompanied by finds of dead wild birds infected with H5N1 HPAI, some near to the border with Germany. Later in the year (December 2007) there were even more serious outbreaks in poultry in Poland resulting in the loss around 600,000 birds. The Polish authorities were slow off of the mark, thus allowing the virus to spread very quickly at first. There were reports that potentially infected poultry meat had entered the food chain.  In spite of these setbacks, the Polish authorities claimed to have cleared up the problem in a matter of weeks. Further east, Romania and Russia have recorded 163 and 147 outbreaks, respectively, since the virus first hit Europe in 2005.

All the evidence suggests that this H5N1 virus, if confirmed as the highly pathogenic strain, has entered poultry from a reservoir of infection in wild birds that appears to exist right across the central and eastern regions of Europe.