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No bird flu crisis in Britain, officials say

British officials called for calm after confirmation the deadly bird flu virus had reached the country’s shores in a dead wild swan in Scotland.
/ Source: Reuters

British officials called for calm Friday after confirmation the deadly bird flu virus had reached the country’s shores in a dead wild swan in Scotland.

“I don’t think that one dead swan is a crisis,” the government’s chief science adviser, David King, told BBC radio.

“I think what it meant was we immediately had to step up our surveillance procedures, we had to see that animal movements were restricted, and we had to make sure all of our reactions were done in the proper and reasonably constrained way.”

Officials have said the threat to humans is remote, despite the discovery of the deadly H5N1 strain in the partially eaten carcass of a Mute swan, found late on March 29 in Cellardyke harbour in eastern Scotland.

Since the swan was found, 14 other birds, including 12 swans, have been tested, with results yet to be announced.

“The risk of this particular virus passing into humans is extremely low. It’s unlikely to occur unless there is any very close contact between a diseased bird and an individual,” Scotland’s chief medical officer Harry Burns said Thursday.

“There is a better chance of a person winning the national lottery than catching bird flu in the U.K. today,” said Jim Robertson, a virologist from the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control.

Scientists fear bird flu could become highly dangerous to humans if the virus mutates into a form easily passed on from one person to another, although it has not done so yet.

According to the World Health Organization, the virus has killed 109 people out of at least 192 known human infections since 2003, almost all of them in Asia and involving people who had close contact with infected birds.

It has infected birds in France, Germany and several other European Union countries in recent months, but there has been no reported case of human infection in the EU. Doctors say properly cooked poultry is safe to eat, but farmers worry demand could plummet because of fear of the disease.

Scottish officials announced measures to prevent the spread of the disease to domestic poultry farms as has happened in some other European countries. Vets will test birds at all poultry farms within 1.8 miles of the site the swan was found.

The authorities also set up a new, 965 sq mile “wild bird risk area” in Scotland.

The government said it had ordered poultry farmers within this area to keep their flocks indoors. There are 175 poultry centres in the zone with some 3.1 million birds, of which 260,000 are free range.