Amid mounting international concern over a potential human flu pandemic, a flurry of outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 bird flu were reported this week from Taiwan to Europe. There is some confusion over whether the virus has reached the European Union. But more worrying is evidence that it is still spreading in China, and the possibility that it could also reach Africa.
Fears that an apparent outbreak of bird flu on the Greek island of Oinousa was H5N1 have not been borne out by initial tests at the UK’s Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the EU reference lab for flu, in Surrey. “Initial tests are negative,” VLA spokesman Matt Conway told New Scientist, although he cautions this will take several days to confirm.Worries that the virus had reached Macedonia were eased when a die-off of poultry turned out to be due to another virus, called Newcastle disease. But in Romania the virus has spread to wild ducks and swans near the Ukrainian border, it has been confirmed.Meanwhile Russian scientists confirmed H5N1 in chickens in the Tula region, 200 kilometres south of Moscow – the first known outbreak in European Russia west of the Urals. Outbreaks continue east of the Urals, with H5N1 confirmed this week in two villages in Kurgan province, and suspected H5N1 in Novosibirsk and Altai.Into AfricaEU health ministers meeting in London, UK, on Thursday stated that the outbreaks in birds posed a “very low risk to the general population of Europe”, as human infections in Asia have required “extended, close contact with birds”. But the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that the migrating birds that have apparently carried the virus to eastern Europe, and others from affected areas of central Asia, are continuing their migration to east Africa.If the virus becomes endemic in east African birds, says Joseph Domenech, the FAO’s chief veterinary officer, it would increase the risk of a pandemic form evolving. “The close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease control capacities in east African countries create an ideal breeding ground for the virus,” he cautioned.Smuggled duckIn a further development, the Chinese agriculture ministry confirmed this week that H5N1 killed 2600 chickens at a farm near Hohhot in the northern province of Inner Mongolia. China has reported only two other outbreaks of H5N1 in domestic poultry in 2005, also in far-flung regions, Tibet and Xinjiang. It attributed all three to infection by wild birds.There was a massive die-off of wild birds caused by H5N1 at Qinghai Lake in northwest China in May. That virus was closely related to samples taken from poultry in southeast China.Now Taiwan has also reported the discovery of the virus in eight wild birds confiscated as part of a clandestine shipment of live pet birds from mainland China. In 2003, before China had reported any outbreaks of the virus, Taiwan found H5N1 in duck meat smuggled from mainland China.And human cases continue in east Asia. Thailand reported its first human bird flu death of 2005 this week, while Indonesia reported that a father and son were being treated for suspected H5N1 flu.(Source: New Scientist: October 2005.)