German bird flu outbreak mystifies scientists

14th February 2006, Comments 0 comments

15 February 2006, HAMBURG - An outbreak of bird flu in the Baltic Sea area triggered a lock-up for all domestic poultry in nearby lands Wednesday and mystified the scientists, who said they could not understand where the dead swans had caught the H5N1 virus.

15 February 2006

HAMBURG - An outbreak of bird flu in the Baltic Sea area triggered a lock-up for all domestic poultry in nearby lands Wednesday and mystified the scientists, who said they could not understand where the dead swans had caught the H5N1 virus.

Four dead swans were found Tuesday and more dead swans were seen Wednesday off the coast of the German island of Ruegen. One of the latter group also had H5N1, bringing the total to three, Germany's federal animal health institute on the island of Riems said.

Ornithologists said mute swans were not migratory and the find implied that birds in the area may have been carrying the virus for months with no ill effects until they were weakened by weeks of cold.

All domestic fowl in the area closest to the latest outbreak - Denmark, Sweden and Germany's north-eastern coastal state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania - were ordered immediately indoors Wednesday. Norway, further away, also imposed a ban.

The German coastal state also prohibited sales of live poultry from market stands or vendor trucks.

A ban on free-range poultry keeping was to come into force in the rest of Germany on Friday and last till the end of April.

German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt said there had been no increase in the danger to humans. "If people don't touch the sick birds, they cannot be infected," she said in Berlin.

Germany put into high gear a scientific project to checkmate the virus if it ever mutates and becomes dangerous to human society.

Klaus Vater, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, said the government had now authorized a grant of 20 million euros (24 million dollars) to two companies that will stand by to develop a vaccine if a human influenza virus evolves from the H5N1 bird virus.

The government plan calls for rapid production of 160 million vaccine doses, double what would be needed to treat 80 million Germans, within a space of months. Scientists say a pandemic, or worldwide attack of killer flu, is theoretically possible.

At the moment, H5N1 can only spread to humans who actually handle an infected bird and the disease is mainly a threat to the poultry industry, since complete flocks have to be slaughtered and burned if even one bird gets sick.

No vaccine for humans can be made unless the virus does mutate. There is no way of predicting what it might evolve into.

While the outbreak in the swans will only become "official" when the result of a European Union laboratory test at Weybridge near London is confirmed on Thursday, German laboratories have already identified the virus as H5N1, the deadliest strain.

"Personally as experts, we have no doubt about it whatever," said Reinhard Kurth, president of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Germany's federal infectious diseases agency, on ZDF television.

Germans were asked to keep an eye out for dead birds but not to touch them. Holidaymakers had reported the first four dead swans Wednesday after seeing them from a ferry travelling between Ruegen and a smaller offshore island, Hiddensee.

At the same location, Wittower Faehre on Ruegen, about eight more dead swans were lying on thin ice at the shore when the sun came up Wednesday. Hundreds of other birds, mainly swans, gulls and geese, had flocked to the place.

A leading German ornithologist said he was sure the mute swans (species Cygnus olor) were not migratory and he was mystified as to where they had caught the disease. Mute swans do not fly long distances, said Franz Bairlein in an interview.

A wildlife group, NABU, said migrating birds had yet to arrive and appealed to Germans not to regard them as disease on wings.

A NABU ornithologist, Markus Nipkow, said it was possible the Baltic swans had been latently infected for a long time and had fallen sick when their immunity weakened. He said it was common for mute swans to catch colds in late winter.

Nipkow said the swans usually spent the winter in the Baltic, where there is food despite ice forming close to shore.

Two other species of swan are migratory between the Arctic and the Baltic, but there have been no accounts of bird flu last summer north of the Arctic Circle.

Bairlein, who heads a bird-watching centre at Wilhelmshaven, said it was odd that none of the thousands of wild birds checked in Germany last autumn had shown any sign of the H5N1 virus.

Elke Reinking, a spokeswoman for the Riems laboratory, said it was possible the swans had caught the virus last autumn from ducks, which fly longer distances.

Avian influenza has now killed birds in more than 20 countries and infected at least 166 people, killing 91 of them.


Subject: German news

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