Israel’s previous brush with the H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus was in March 2006, but the latest outbreak in the first days of 2008 could not have hit in a more sensitive situation.

Haifa district physician, Professor Shmuel Rishpon, confirmed the virus in chickens at a petting zoo in kindergarten at Binyamina in Haifa district in northern Israel after 18 out of 25 chickens were found dead on 3 January 2008. “The virus was identified as H5N1 bird flu,” said Professor Rishpon, adding humans contracting this strain have only a 50% survival rate. He commended the kindergarten teacher for calling a veterinarian and not trying to deal with the dead birds herself, said an early report by Ynetnews 

“Kindergarten staff were given preventive medicines and as far as we know, none of the children or their parents came in contact with the birds,” added Professor Rishpon. “We have alerted hospitals in the area to look out for any children or adults coming in with bird flu-like symptoms.”

Veterinarian, Gilad Goldstein, who was called out said, “It was obvious that some sort of epidemic had hit the petting zoo, which made me suspect either Newcastle Disease or bird flu. Knowing there was a bird-flu alert in the area, I sent blood samples to the Health Ministry.”

Aryeh Zitouni, head of the Binyamina-Givat Ada regional council, told Ynetnews, “At this point, we know the disease has not spread further. Hatcheries in the surrounding area have been fumigated and we are still waiting to hear whether or not we’ll have to put down all the poultry within a two-mile radius.”

Agriculture Ministry announced it was putting all chicken houses and hatcheries within a six-mile radius under quarantine.

Zitouni had clearly guessed correctly for within hours, the agricultural ministry's veterinary service begun culling all poultry in a two-mile radius as a pre-emptive measure. This included some 4000 chickens and turkeys at Moshav Beit Hanania on 4 January. Culling at the farm was expected to be complete that day.

The agriculture ministry told Ynetnews that laboratory test results of samples taken from chicken houses in the area were all negative but culling was going ahead as a safety measure against virus spread. Birds at the affected farm were killed by electrocution in less than a second in accordance with local animal rights regulations and the owners compensated, said the ministry.

Israel’s only other H5N1 outbreak in March 2006 received relatively little publicity because the disease had by then been raging across many countries including Turkey and Egypt causing human deaths as well as losses in poultry, and these were grabbing all the headlines. Nevertheless this first ever outbreak in Israel on 16 March 2006 led to a cull of more than 1.1 million birds on 53 commercial farms across 15 localities within 9 days.

Outbreaks this time round in Israel come as no surprise, given that H5N1 is endemic in Egypt and a there was a recent large outbreak in Saudi Arabia, close to Israel’s borders. In turn, Lebanon – no more than 50km to the north – issued its own alert, according to AFP.

Ministry of Agriculture in Lebanon issued a statement on 5 January 2007 calling on farmers to stay vigilant. “The agriculture ministry's teams will continue to work on the ground to monitor any such cases that could come up and put an end to it in order to keep Lebanon free from this disease”, said the statement. The ministry called on Lebanese farmers to keep poultry flocks locked up to prevent any mixing with wild birds.