Russia saw it – H5N1 – all before when the Qinghai strain caused avian influenza (AI) to break out in China and sped across Western Asia and into Eastern Europe in 2005. The virus struck again in 2006 with 90 cases in the North Caucasus region that borders Georgia and Azerbaijan, and in Siberia’s Novosibirsk and Omsk regions. And again in January 2007 in the south western Krasnodar region, but current threat is to a major city as H5N1 lays siege to Moscow with 10 million inhabitants.
Within nine days of first poultry deaths (10 February), eight outbreaks across six districts of the Moscow region (Moskovskaya Oblast) totalling 265 domestic chickens had been recorded. H5N1 has almost encircled the city with outbreaks at Taldom in the north, Odintsovo just 49km to the west, Naro-Forminsk in the south-west and Podolsk, Domodedvo and Ramenskoye – the latest – due south.
Gennady Onischchenko, Russia’s chief epidemiologist and head of the country’s animal and plant health watchdog (Rosselkhoznador), confirmed these sequential outbreaks were caused by a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain.
All outbreaks are in small domestic chicken flocks and traced to birds purchased from Moscow’s Sadovod pet market (colloquially known as ‘Pitchka’ or ‘Birdie’ market). The market was promptly closed down and quarantined by veterinary inspectors trying to trace the virus, presumably introduced on birds from other parts of Russia, says Rosselkhoznador.
Officials suspect that H5N1 arrived on migrating birds from the Caucasus and western Asia. Recent outbreaks in neighbouring Azerbaijan are under suspicion. There is increasing evidence of disease reservoirs and outbreaks in south-western regions of Russia including Kalmykia and Krasnodar close to the border with Azerbaijan with its record of eight human cases and five deaths.
Moscow’s veterinary and food safety experts are urging local residents not to buy birds from unauthorised locations, and prosecutors have launched investigations into alleged veterinary violations. All poultry in the Moscow region is normally vaccinated twice a year (in the spring and autumn) but immediate revaccination is now recommended for good measure. Vaccination of flocks over one million birds in the region will be carried out free of charge said Olga Gavrilenko, head of the regional branch of Russia’s consumer rights group, Rospotrebnadzor. The authorities are confident that H5N1 will not spread into the commercial poultry sector and among precautions taken are banning those who work on commercial poultry farms from keeping poultry at home.
They have assured Muscovites about public health. Nikolai Vlasov, senior veterinary official with Rosselkhoznador said, “If traces of the virus appear at the market, we cannot exclude the possibility of outbreaks. But there should be no panic because conditions in Russia, especially in winter (when poultry are kept indoors), mean there is not even any theoretical possibility of human infection.”
These are comforting but optimistic words given H5N1’s ability to withstand extreme cold for long periods of time.