Poland’s reaction to outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus in commercial poultry appears to be casual, considering that virus-contaminated meat entered the retail market and has probably been in the food chain for as long as two weeks. Poland may be playing down H5N1 but importers of Polish poultry around the world are playing safe and lining up to ban further trade and understandably so.
Details on index infections in turkeys on farms at Uniejewo and Myśliborzyce villages near the town of Płock (Brudzen Duzy county) in Mazowieckie province (central Poland) are sketchy. Whether infected birds were found on the farms or after delivery for slaughter is unclear.
According to a report by CIDRAP (quoting OIE), outbreaks began on 30 November 2007, killing 60 birds on one farm and 300 on the other. A total of 4245 remaining birds were culled on the two farms. Samples were sent to the National Veterinary Research Institute in Pulawy and confirmed positive for H5N1 on 1 December. A report in the Warsaw Business Journal indicates the disease was picked up when birds were sent for slaughter. It claimed a meat company received a consignment of 5500 birds with 8% dead-on-arrival or in poor health, and at least three confirmed infected with H5N1.
Infected meat reached shops in a cluster of cities and towns (Gdansk, Gdynia, Czluchow, Chojnice, Kosierzyyna and Kartuzy all in the northern province of Pomorskie (Eastern Pomerania), said the Polish authorities. A later report from Poland.pl said meat producers in northern Warmia and Mazury regions were recalling poultrymeat that could be infected with H5N1, meaning the problem may be extended into the neighbouring north-eastern province of Warminsko-Mazurskie. The report claimed around 7000 processed birds from turkey farms where the disease was discovered were still in stores.
The situation in Poland is clearly critical but ministers and officials do not appear to be unduly concerned. Jan Bondar, spokesman for the State Sanitary Inspectorate, said, “We have an economic, not a health problem. It has not yet been the case that a bird flu virus has infected a person in Europe.” Poland.pl quoted officials saying there is no danger to humans because this particular strain of avian flu must first mutate before it starts to pose a threat to people.
Agriculture minister, Marek Sawicki, went on Polish radio to reassure the public that the situation was stable. However, reports by Thenews.pl claimed the virus was spreading. Tests showed two dead chickens found on another farm in the village Mysliborzyce had died of HPAI. Veterinary Institute in Pulawy announced that 170 chickens found dead on a poultry farm in the village of Kobielniki near Płock (and the confirmed outbreaks in turkeys) were not infected with H5N1. Precautionary culls around the outbreak farms appeared to be underway following reports that a crisis team had decided to slaughter 2200 birds from 60 farms in Myśliborzyce, Unijewo and Rokito on 5 December. However, given the total number of birds and number of farms involved, they appear to be backyard flocks.
Local authorities in Plock are apparently unfazed. Local authority member, Michael Boszko claimed, “There is no need at present to enlarge the danger zone. We are still dealing with two hotspots within the danger zone set out earlier.” He was referring to the European Union’s (EU) 3km protection zone, 10km surveillance zone and much wider restricted zone around the infected farms.
Marek Sawicki said there was no threat to people’s lives and health and that affected farmers would receive appropriate compensation for birds slaughtered as a result of the avian flu outbreak. However, he went on to warn that not all losses incurred by farm owners could be compensated. Mr Sawicki said that he was hopeful Poland's poultry industry would not be affected by H5N1. He claimed other EU countries like United Kingdom, Czech Republic and Germany had undergone the same experience and survived.
Other countries are clearly anxious about the health and integrity of Polish poultry. Ukraine has already banned import of Polish poultry and no EU countries are willing to buy it either, claimed Thenews.pl. Hong Kong announced an immediate ban on imports of all Polish poultry. “The decision was taken after confirmation of a case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1,” said a spokesperson from Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety. Hong Kong has already imported over 6000 tonnes of frozen poultry from Poland this year.
Clearly playing strictly according to its own rules, EU imposed a 30-day ban on Polish poultry, but only from five counties around the outbreak farms. This geographically limited ban covers the 3km surveillance zone and 10km surveillance zone around the outbreak sites. In line with binding EU rules, no member country is allowed to unilaterally ban imports from outside this designated area. This clearly poses an interesting dilemma for member countries. Infected birds on farms may well be confined to a small area of central Poland but the virus appears to have spread around the north of the country on infected carcasses and meat.
From the limited information available to date, it appears that the index infection is on turkey farms in the central region. This may or may not have picked up (identified) on-farm or when birds were received for slaughter, then traced back to farm(s) of origin. Consignments of birds had already left these infected farms during the previous two weeks and slaughtered, with meat passing into retail outlets and to consumers. The infection was present on the farms for around three weeks before being found.
Failure to promptly pick up and confirm H5N1 has happened in other countries including Nigeria and Bangladesh and infection is now endemic in both countries. Poland has the full resources of the EU at its disposal, and local authorities would be wise to be more cautious than they appear to be. Their comments indicate that they underestimate HPAI viruses, especially with respect to capacity for human infection. The H5N1 strain prevailing in Poland is almost certainly of ‘Asian lineage’, which does not have to mutate to infect and kill people.
The present situation in Poland will test the skill, will and determination of that country and the EU to ensure speedy eradication.