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We must vaccinate and educate

With news today that the H5N1 strain of bird flu has reached Britain, these
are worrying times for poultry farmers and the public, writes Jo Revill.

Thursday April 6, 2006

So bird flu has finally arrived in Britain, and much later than predicted by
experts. The only real surprise is that we are one of the last European
countries to report a case, which we might have expected to happen at least
two months ago.

We've had confirmation that the swan discovered in Scotland eight days ago was
carrying the H5N1 strain. It is of great concern that the bird was a mute
swan - a native species - meaning it probably contracted the disease by
mixing with another infected bird in Scotland. That means it wasn't brought
here via migration from an infected region.

For poultry farmers across the UK, these will be worrying times. The six-mile
surveillance zone around the area of Fife where the swan was found is now
under restrictions over the movement of birds, but we can expect to see much
tighter guidelines across the region affecting chicken farmers. The Rural
Affairs Secretary, Margaret Beckett, will have to look at whether the
controls on birds are limited to Scotland, or whether she brings in the kind
of restrictions we have seen in other European countries, such as France,
where millions of birds now have to be kept indoors. Some farmers whose
flocks are totally free-range will find it hard to provide the right
accommodation for all the birds, and may face closure.

Although Mrs Beckett's department is not fond of vaccinating livestock, it is
now a question that has to be addressed. Vaccinating a flock of hens does not
eradicate the disease - it can still live within the birds - but if it's done
properly, it can be hugely effective in cutting down the rates of
transmission to other birds, as well as other animals. We have the example of
Italy, which has brought in a successful vaccination programme to prevent the
disease contaminating flocks across the country.

As for the public, there are already signs that they are going to stay away
from bird reserves, parks, lakes, anywhere where they could come into contact
with birds. The government needs to find a very clear way of communicating to
them that the risks of a human catching H5N1 from a bird are infinitesimally
small. But what would be much more useful would be for them to explain that
the risk really begins from the moment when the virus mutates into a form
which is easily transmissible between people. Diseases don't come with
timetables and maps, so we can't predict when or where this will happen, only
that as the pool of contagion spreads among birds, the opportunities for the
leap into a new species grow.

So long-term, what we need is a campaign to educate people about the way they
can cut down their risks of exposure during a flu pandemic, and that means
teaching the public about hygiene measures such as hand-washing and covering
noses and mouths when sneezing. Most of these public health messages, learned
in the post-war years, have now disappeared from our collective consciousness
but they need to be dusted down and given a new meaning.

·Jo Revill is health editor of The Observer, and author of Everything You Need
To Know About Bird Flu.