Bird Flu Outbreak Rattles Britain

The British government wants to calm fears about transmission of the H5N1 strain from turkeys to humans, but the WHO warns against complacency

The UK confirmed its first ever outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu over the weekend, with EU experts to meet on Tuesday (6 February) to assess the latest case following recent confirmation of the deadly virus in Hungary and an apparent resurgence of the disease in other parts of the world.

British authorities have said that around 160,000 turkeys will have to be gassed at a farm in east England and have set up a 3km exclusion zone and a 10km surveillance zone to try and contain the outbreak.

They are also investigating how the highly pathogenic Asian strain got into the turkey farm.

Over 160 people have been killed by H5N1 world wide - mainly in south east Asia - since 2003, with experts fearing that it may eventually mutate into a virus that can easily be caught by humans sparking a global pandemic.

The UK government has sought to calm such fears with its chief scientific advisor saying he was "rather confident" that humans would not catch it.

"It's those countries where there's close contact between people and live birds, where people buy live birds from market and take them home and kill them themselves, it's that sort of context where the danger arises," Sir David King told ITV news.

"I don't see this happening in Europe," he said.

The UK outbreak strain is similar to the one found in geese in Hungary last month and EU member state experts are meeting on Tuesday to assess the situation in the bloc.

Britain's announcement has already sparked precautionary measures in other member states however, with national governments nervous about the reappearance of the virus in the EU after a six-month absence - it was last detected in Germany in August 2006.

Ireland has put its laboratories on alert, the Netherlands has announced increased protective measures while France is assessing the risk for its poultry.

At the height of the crisis in 2005 and 2006, 14 member states were affected. Farmers and breeders were hit particularly strongly, affected not only by the outbreak itself, but also by the restrictive measures imposed to contain it and the plummet in sales of chicken meat.

COMPLACENCYDuring that crisis veterinary experts remained divided about the extent of the threat. However, reacting to Britain's outbreak, the World Health Organisation has warned Europe against being complacent.

According to AFP, spokesman Gregory Hartl said that member states should be aware that the virus could mutate to become transmissible between humans just as easily in Europe as in Asian or African countries.

"A mutation could occur anywhere. Someone was saying in relation to the British outbreak, 'Oh, it won't happen in Europe'," he said.

"That's really a kind of false security that is being built up."

Meanwhile, the number of cases of the deadly bird flu virus has been increasing around the world.

Japan and Nigeria recently reported cases of the virus while China, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam have had incidences of the virus in the last two months.

Dr David Nabarro, the UN official coordinating the fight against global flu, said he expected the number of cases to increase in the coming months, although he stressed that the risk to human health was small.

"I am expecting to see outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a number of locations over the next three or four months, and I am basing it on what happened last year," he told AP news agency.

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