An outbreak of bird flu in England may have spread to over a hundred thousand turkeys at a poultry farm in Suffolk. Officials have not reached a definitive answer as to how the turkeys, which were located on a poultry farm owned and operated by the Bernard Matthews company, became infected with bird flu. The results from laboratory tests over the weekend confirmed on Sunday that the disease was in fact avian flu. This is the first documented outbreak of bird flu to occur in Great Britain.
On Tuesday, several birds died of then unknown causes at a poultry farm in the town of Holton. By Thursday, a veterinarian for the company concluded that the disease was “unidentifiable.” As other turkeys on the farm started falling ill at a rapid rate, official government vets arrived and made a tentative diagnosis of bird flu. Test results later confirmed the presence of the avian flu virus.
The virus in question has been verified as the Asian strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus, which experts called a “highly pathogenic” form of the flu. Approximately two thousand, five hundred birds living in one shed on the poultry farm have died of the disease.
Government spokespeople have taken pains to make it clear that the danger this virus poses to human populations is slim. A spokesperson for Bernard Matthews stated that no infected birds had entered the food chain, and that the incident posed no risk to public health. According to Health Protection Agency chief executive Professor Pat Troop, the risk to the general population from the outbreak was “very, very low,” and Virologist Jangu Banauala called the risk to humans “negligible.”
However, the Department of Health has taken steps to prepare for the possibility that the disease does manage to pass from bird to human. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt stated Sunday that the government has already stockpiled enough anti-viral vaccine to cover a quarter of the entire population of Great Britain.
British authorities have denied accusations that their response was slow. According to Fred Landeg, the government’s deputy chief veterinarian, “The premises were immediately placed under restrictions and an investigation started” when a representative from the Bernard Matthews company reported the bird deaths on Thursday. A bio-security zone has been established around the farm, and government protection and surveillance zones now surround the farm.
Experts, have theorized that the flock became infected by wild, migrating birds, which can carry the virus over long distances without displaying symptoms. Even as investigations are still under way as to how the virus spread, steps are being taken to contain the incident and prevent any further outbreaks.
According to government employed veterinarians in England, fifty thousand turkeys from the farm where the virus was discovered have been gassed. Over one hundred thousand more are scheduled to be killed in order to halt the spread of the disease. Fourteen sealed trucks containing the carcasses are traveling over 200 miles to a rendering plant in Staffordshire, where they will be destroyed. Dozens more trucks are scheduled to follow in the next few days.
As per the Animal Health Act of 1981, the Bernard Matthews company will be entitled to compensation for the slaughtered birds, as a spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed on Sunday.