There are two scientific questions that urgently need to be answered in the wake of the latest outbreak of bird flu being identified as the virulent H5N1 strain. Firstly, how did it get onto the Redgrave Park Farm, near Diss, Suffolk, and, secondly, will it spread beyond the site?
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has set up a full epidemiological investigation to answer these questions. The government’s acting chief vet, Fred Landeg, has said investigators are keeping an open mind.
But we do now know that the virus found at the farm is of Asian lineage and is of the same form that infected birds in the Czech Republic and Germany. The affected farm is free range and its owners have not imported feed from overseas. The priority now for Defra vets is to reduce the possibility of the spread of the disease
These two facts suggest that the virus arrived in the UK from migratory birds rather than cross-contamination from an overseas factory. If that is the case, the worry is that wild birds in the UK might have bird flu and that this current outbreak will be the first of many that erupt from time to time.
A more hopeful scenario is that the infection was spread by a transient bird and that the current culling might have nipped the disease in the bud. If there are more infections of domestic poultry in the coming weeks and months, we will know that the disease is in Britain’s wild bird population. Even if that’s not happened on this occasion, many scientists believe that it is inevitable that H5N1 will eventually establish itself in the UK. The priority now for Defra vets is to reduce the possibility of the spread of the disease. They are currently trying to identify flocks outside of the farm that may have been exposed to infection. Once identified, those flocks will also be culled.
Another way of controlling any spread of the disease is through Defra’s poultry register -a data base currently consisting of poultry farmers who own more than 50 birds. Landeg has now asked poultry keepers with less than 50 birds to register and to report any signs of disease in their flocks straight away. “It’s extremely important that poultry keepers in the area are vigilant,” he said. Although the risk of the disease spreading to humans is very low, Landeg has urged poultry keepers to follow strict bio-security procedures and to follow simple hygiene measures.