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 April 5 2006


Letter to the BBC

I have just been listening to the BBC 24 Hour News on the H5 bird flu case in Fife
I think that Countryfile and Farming Today may not be directly connected to the 24 hour team;  perhaps they should be consulting you more with your first hand knowledge!
A few points on 24 hour news which you might transfer to them:
  • There has been no reference to the domestic poultry outbreak in Germany today, or the numerous outbreaks which have occurred in Germany in recent weeks. Our German friends have been simply waiting for this German domestic poultry outbreak to happen. H5N1 has been around in Germany, Poland, Sweden and Denmark for weeks. There is a petition in Germany to allow vaccination for birds.
  • Our friends in Holland are greatly relieved that they can get on with vaccinating their hobby and free range birds. I think BBC breakfast-time has been filming in Holland this week? And of course Countryfile visited Christine Bijl.
  • It was said on the news that the UK has experience in combating avian influenza. Is that a reference to the single case in East Anglia, in a single shed, in 1992? Or the odd case in Scotland, I believe, in the 1960s?  Is that the sum total of our experience?
  • When asked about vaccination, which clearly meant vaccination for birds,  the discussion wandered onto the usual discourse on the ineffectiveness of human vaccines, and the estimated number of human deaths. At least  Dr David Nabarro put that into the right perspective later in the programme
  • Dr Ruth Watkins, earlier in the news, did refer to vaccines for BIRDS. Of course, bird organisations have been begging DEFRA for months to establish a vaccine bank, and a policy for using it. As far as we know, DEFRA has 2.3 million doses for zoo birds only. To get more vaccine would take months. I think the autumn has been mentioned. There is no bank for other birds, and there is no policy other than cull, cull, cull.
  • The Soil Association spokesperson seemed quite happy to move free range flocks indoors. The Soil Association did refer to plan B. Plan A is to cull. Plan B is to use ring vaccination. The Soil Association was dubious about DEFRA having a plan B . So am I. How much vaccine is there above the zoo bird requirement?
  • There are waterfowl collections which cannot be moved indoors on welfare grounds. They simply die. That has happened in Holland whilst birds have been kept indoors/ under cover waiting for vaccination. In Germany, healthy waterfowl have been culled because they could not be moved indoors. Many keepers of the birds which live outside want vaccination for the birds. There is no choice. This is a serious welfare issue in Europe
  • Vaccination for birds is this vulnerable, outdoor category is supported by the British Veterinary Association and OIE ( see the letter to Paula Polman on )
  • The reiteration of vaccination only masking infection in birds is the standard BBC and government line. That is not borne out by experimental data. There are good reasons for using vaccination and they are never given in your official reports. The reporting is extremely biased, so much so that it is misinformed.
  • In any case, a vaccination programme would be accompanied by monitoring. And if vaccination for zoo birds, in close proximity to the public is allowed, why is not allowed for waterfowl and rare species collections, pet birds and free range birds? These birds live for many years. They are not the same as commercial birds killed at 6 weeks.
  • Whilst one dead swan does not make an epidemic, the reporting tonight began to expose the truth. We do not know how widespread the virus will become, how long it might be here for, and if it might affect the commercial sector. I think it also cast serious doubt on DEFRA's preparedness. They are certainly prepared to impose movement restrictions (as they should) and cull,as they will have to with infected birds. So far, a cull and confining vulnerable birds are their only strategies. How far will a cull go? And how much will people stand for this time? FMD is not that far away. In the area in which I live, people were sickened by it.
I look forward to more balanced reporting on use of vaccines for birds in the plans of the UK to deal with an outbreak, should an outbreak occur. Perhaps , with your knowledge, you could encourage 24 hour news  to give a more balanced report? Let us hope that this case in Fife is simply a warning, and that it goes no further.
Christine Ashton (Dr), waterfowl keeper, author, and contributor to magazines