Avian flu back in Britain

An outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza has been confirmed at a turkey farm in eastern England.

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They say that lightning does not strike in the same place twice but avian flu apparently does in the United Kingdom (UK). Confirmation of an H5 virus in turkeys on a free-range farm just 35km from the February 2007 outbreak of H5N1 at Holton in Suffolk was followed by the cull of 6000 birds including geese and ducks as well as turkeys.

The disease was discovered on 11 November 2007 after a veterinarian reported a worrying death rate in the turkey flock. Subsequent testing by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency identified the H5 virus. Results of tests to determine whether it is the highly pathogenic H5N1 sub-type that dispatched 160,000 of turkeys at Holton in February were expected within 24 hours of the announcement. Obligatory 3km protection and 10km surveillance zones have been established around the infected farm.

Like the farm at Holton, this one in the village of Redgrave near the town of Diss near the county border between Suffolk and Norfolk is owned by a large commercial company. Whilst not such a big household name as Bernard Matthews (owner of the turkey farm at Holton), it is significant nevertheless. According to The Times and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Redgrave Poultry (Redgrave Park Farm) owned by Gressingham Foods, best known for geese with which it dominates the UK goose market. The company also produces seasonal turkeys, around 100,000 and 20,000 birds, respectively, for the Christmas and Easter markets.

Speculation is rife as to source of this H5 virus especially if it turns out to be H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus and genetically close to the strain that infected the Bernard Matthews farm at Holton in February. That was cleaned up and passed with a clean bill of health some time ago and is not considered to be directly related to this latest outbreak.

Observers are already speculating that migratory wild waterfowl have introduced the virus especially given the time of year and occurrence in East Anglia, which attracts huge numbers of migratory wild water fowl.

There was evidence following the Holton outbreak to suggest that wild birds were the vehicle via which virus was spread from the turkey processing plant and into the turkey growing sheds nearby on the same site. It has been reported that gulls were observed scavenging turkey waste from outside the processing plant and flying onto the roofs of the turkey growing sheds.

Government vets made repeated assurances about stepped up surveillance and said there was no evidence of H5N1 in wild birds. When cornered by The Independent national newspaper, Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admitted that no tests had been carried out on live wild birds within the restricted area around Holton within the three weeks following the outbreak in February. Nearest sampling and testing of live wild birds they said was 80km away.

If the H5 virus found at Redgrave is identified as the H5N1 sub-type of HPAI, then residual infection in resident wild birds since February must be considered a real possibility, especially if the virus is genetically close to the strain isolated, identified and sequenced from Holton.
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