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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 February 2007, 13:34 GMT
Experts play down risk to humans
Avian flu virus
Bird flu cannot pass easily between humans
Experts have stressed the outbreak of bird flu at a farm in Suffolk poses no immediate risk to human health.

The outbreak has been confirmed as the H5N1 strain of the virus which has infected 270 people, and killed 164 - most in south east Asia - since 2003.

However, the virus cannot easily pass from human to human at present.

So far, all those who have been infected have been poultry workers who have come into intimate contact with infected birds.

There is no immediate public health risk
Dr Colin Butter
Institute for Animal Health

Experts warn that if the virus acquires the ability to pass from human to human, then it will pose a potential threat to millions across the globe.

Health chiefs in the UK have warned that if such a modified strain does emerge then tens of thousands of people could die in Britain alone.

However, at present H5N1 remains overwhelmingly a disease of birds, and not humans.

So at present the threat to human health from the outbreak in Suffolk is minimal - particularly as it appears to have been rapidly contained.

Asia is key

Dr Colin Butter, a bird flu expert at the Institute for Animal Health, said: "This outbreak is no risk to the general public and will be controlled by culling.

It is exceedingly unlikely that any human is going to get sick as a result of H5N1 in one turkey farm in Britain at this time
Dr David Nabarro
United Nations

"The risk to public health is from a human pandemic which is not likely to originate in Europe.

"A pandemic of this type, if it does happen, is likely to occur in an area where people live side by side with birds, like in East Asia.

"So there is no immediate public health risk, but this is clearly something we need to get under control."

Dr David Nabarro, bird flu coordinator for the United Nations, also stressed that H5N1 posed little threat to humans.

He said: "It is exceedingly unlikely that any human is going to get sick as a result of H5N1 in one turkey farm in Britain at this time.

"The numbers of human cases are very, very small indeed, even though the virus has been moving through poultry in at least 50 countries in the last year, and led to millions of birds dying.

"This is really not a human disease, it is a poultry disease."

Farm workers

Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union, said the workers on the Suffolk farm were also unlikely to be at risk.

He said poultry workers in south east Asia effectively lived with their birds, and had far closer contact than any of their counterparts in the UK.

"On a modern poultry farm a lot of the feeding is done mechanically, and the involvement of the workers with the poultry is really minimalised."

Dr Maria Zambon, from the Health Protection Agency, said farm workers who had come into contact with infected birds, and those involved in the culling process would be offered the anti-viral drug tamiflu as a precaution.

She stressed that nobody had developed symptoms of bird flu following similar outbreaks among farm birds in continental Europe.

David Catlow, president of the British Veterinary Association, said the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had acted quickly to contain and isolate the outbreak.

He stressed that the public were safe to continue eating poultry.

Virus mix

The H5N1 virus is most likely to acquire the ability to pass easily from human to human if it mixes with a standard flu virus, and swaps genetic material.

This could happen if H5N1 infects a human - or other animal - which is already infected with standard flu.

To minimise the risk of this happening in the UK, the Department of Health recently announced that it would offer seasonal flu vaccine to poultry workers across England.

The theory is that if poultry workers are kept free of normal flu, then even in the highly unlikely event that they were infected with H5N1, the bird flu virus would not come into contact with its cousin.




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An EU spokesperson on bird flu in the UK





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