Hopes that H5N1 outbreaks in Germany and Czech Republic were isolated cases foundered when France confirmed H5N1 in wild swans, a rash of new cases appeared in wild water fowl in some eastern states of Germany and two more large poultry farms were hit in the Czech Republic. Countries across the European continent from east to west battened down their poultry industries against an apparent all-out but out-of-season threat from H5N1.
Following initial outbreaks in Nuremburg of Bayern (Bavaria) state and Leipzig in Sachsen (Saxony) state, the German national reference laboratory confirmed H5N1 in a black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) in Thüringen (Thuringia) state close to the border with Sachsen.
But it was the large number of cases reported on 5 July from Sangerhausen in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt) that set alarm bells ringing.German authorities reported thirty nine dead birds on the shores of an artificial lake testing positive for H5N1. It was on the other side of the lake at Kelbra in Thüringen state where a dead bird with H5N1 had been found two days earlier.
“Exactly where the virus came cannot be established yet,” claimed Professor Thomas Mettenleiter, president of the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute (FLI). Starting point is the artificial lake Kelbra at the border between Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt where over 100 dead birds were found on the Sachsen-Anhalt side. Thirty nine were initially diagnosed with H5N1 and 13 samples sent to FLI were confirmed with highly pathogenic H5N1 ‘type Asia’. Scientists suspect disease came across the border from the Czech Republic where domestic poultry (chickens and turkeys) were already infected. The Leipzig outbreak was close to the border between Germany and Czech Republic.
And the virus was consolidating its position in The Czech Republic. Two large poultry farms within the 3 km exclusion zone around the Norin outbreak with a combined flock total of around 70,000 birds were confirmed with H5N1 on 11 July.
Back in Germany FLI claimed disease pattern indicated high infection pressure in the local game bird population. They went to say that there is no classical bird migration at this time of year but the virus can still be spread quickly over shorter distances by these ‘game’ (wild water fowl) birds. Referring to wild water fowl as ‘game’ birds FLI clearly see sporting (shooting) as one key factor in promoting spread. Shooting helps to disperse birds and therefore H5N1, as well as putting hunters and their hunting dogs at risk of contracting the disease.
Czech authorities suspect spread between the first two outbreak sites at Tisova and Norin was on the shoes of a worker or on a car tyre because the two poultry farms belong to the same cooperative, ZOD Zalsi.
Coincidental infection of swans in eastern France and reports of suspected cases in Austria confirmed Europe was facing a summer of danger from the H5N1 virus which many believe never left Europe after causing widespread outbreaks and concern in 2005-2006.
Three dead young swans infected with H5N1 were found on a pond in Assenoncourt in the Moselle prefecture (Lorraine region) of eastern France. Clinical symptoms in wild birds in the Gmunden district of Upper Austria indicated that H5N1 had crossed yet another European border.
European governments swung into action with rapid response from the affected countries and Netherlands, but a more laid back approach from others. Germany and France upped the H5N1 risk level from ‘moderate’ to ‘high’ and announced preventative measures to protect poultry industries.
An 'observation zone' extending 15 km was set up around outbreak site in France. Regional prefect Pierre-Rene Lemas said it was not a security cordon, although a dozen police officers were exercising 'dynamic control' to prevent any movements, and to disseminate information.
Michel Barnier, French minister of agriculture and fishing, said all poultry in mainland France, Europe’s biggest poultry producer, will be locked up or protected by nets to avoid contact with wild birds. Special veterinary checks at poultry farms are planned for 98 ‘humid zones’ representing 15 per cent of the country and presenting havens for wild water fowl. Poultry shows, pigeon races and other events where birds gather will be forbidden. Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot claimed France was not threatened by a flu pandemic at this stage but government was staying alert.
France had already increased precautionary measures in June claiming H5N1 could hit the country after its confirmation in Germany and the Czech Republic. French poultry breeders' groups claimed sanitary practices put in place would provide sufficient protection to thwart disease spread. "We have to be extremely vigilant because the large flu epidemic that appeared after World War I, also known as Spanish flu, was of avian origin," said Bachelot.
Spain's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food asked veterinary services to be more vigilant. Spain had already banned hunting with decoys, keeping of outdoor poultry, as well as isolating breeding areas for wild aquatic birds in high-risk zones along bird migration paths and in wetlands.
Ultra cautious Netherlands biggest exporter of poultry and poultry products in the European Union (EU) ordered poultry keepers to keep birds indoors. There is no reason to panic but it is worrying that more cases have been found, claimed Ben Dullaert of the meat marketing board PVE. The 'Metz-Nancy’ district in Lorraine region where the French outbreak occurred is not very far away,” said Dullaert.
Precautions in United Kingdom (UK) against H5N1 have previously proved too little and too late. There appeared no rush to do much this time when UK government said there were no new measures in place, although the situation in France was being monitored in close liaison with the European Commission. "A preliminary outbreak assessment is under way and we are monitoring the risks. We would urge all bird keepers to maintain high levels of biosecurity and vigilance”, said a government spokesperson.
In what appeared to be an after thought the UK Environment Agency announced a ban on international pigeon racing from continental Europe (including the Channel Islands) to Britain. Domestic racing will be allowed to continue, said Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds. "Given the current period of uncertainty about avian influenza in Europe and the possibility that further spread may occur, a precautionary approach is being taken based on ornithological and veterinary advice", said Reynolds.
By July 6 German officials had discovered the H5N1 virus in domestic poultry for the first time this year but said the danger was small. A pet goose in the town of Wickersdorf in the state of Thüringen was found to be infected with the virus, said the FLI. Institute spokeswoman Elke Reinking said the danger of infection spreading in the surrounding area was small because the infected bird lived on a small hobby farm in a remote area. Even so German authorities ordered culled all domestic birds (about 1,000 in all) within a two mile radius of the outbreak. Vets were sent door-to-door to ensure that all animals at risk could be properly disposed of, said the state health ministry.
Indications are that H5N1 may have been circulating amongst wild birds, and perhaps poultry, in the eastern region of Europe for almost two years. Comparison of 2007 gene sequences with those from 2005 – 2006 should clarify the situation one way or another.
Increased European worries over H5N1 coincide with decreasing concerns in the
the US. According to a survey by Ipsos the proportion (27 per cent) of US consumers expressing more than moderate concern about bird flu in the United States in 2007 is 8 per cent down on last year.
Fuelling European concern is the relatively small distances (by North American standards), between a H5N1-infected country and disease-free neighbouring countries. Outbreaks are predominantly in wild birds which often only have to fly a few km to arrive in another country. For instance the Lorraine region of France, with infected swans in the Moselle prefecture, borders Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, the only French region having a common border with three other countries.
* Survey conducted online by Ipsos between June 7 and June 17 2007 among 1,438 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older.