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A solution any birdbrain should see

Magnus Linklater
As avian flu can spread unpredictably, vaccination is the humane and intelligent option 
THE GOVERNMENT'S response to the threat of bird flu in Britain is heart-sinkingly predictable. As soon as the first infected creature is identified, there will be mass slaughter around the site where it is found, and isolation of any threatened premises. All birds within a fixed radius will be eliminated and movement restricted. Vaccination has been all but ruled out - indeed there has been no attempt even to order up the vaccines that other countries, like the Netherlands, are using. If all this sounds depressingly familiar - it is. As last week's devastating report from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne on the 2001 foot-and-mouth (FMD) outbreak pointed out:"The UK's approach to combating animal disease has remained broadly the same since the FMD crisis. Stamping out is the basic philosophy, through the culling of infected animals and those that may have been at risk of being exposed to the disease. Vaccination remains a theoretical option."
That blinkered position was confirmed this week by Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, who quoted, almost word for word, the mantra we heard repeated so often five years ago as the pits filled with burning carcases and the countryside was emptied of people and prospects:"Everyone recognises that vaccination has problems," she said."(It) does not necessarily stop the disease in its tracks."

Of course it does not. Very few inoculation programmes do. But in the case of bird flu, most experts agree that the generic vaccines currently available would offer about 80 per cent protection, which would be of critical importance in containing the epidemic. It would safeguard valuable poultry flocks, rather than killing them; it would slow down the spread of the epidemic; it would hand control to vets rather than government agencies; above all, it would stand a chance of winning the support and confidence of the countryside rather than ruining its economy, as happened last time, at an estimated cost of some 8 billion.
There is one critical difference between avian flu and FMD, which makes the case for vaccination compelling. Its spread is entirely unpredictable. It can be brought in by a skein of wintering geese, or be dropped from the air by a migrating flock of eider duck; you can kill every hen on a farm and each feathered thing within miles around, then discover it in a dying swan 100 miles away. Three-kilometre exclusion boundaries have very little meaning for wildlife. As one ornithologist said yesterday:"We did think of putting up a notice at the Slimbridge reserve, saying No Fly Zone, but would the birds pay any attention?" Stopping the movement of animals between farms, which was standard practice during the FMD crisis, might make sense on paper, but it would be irrelevant if this disease took hold during the coming migration season, with flocks of web-footed birds and waders pouring in from the Baltic.
That is why vaccination, used now, in advance of an outbreak, would be not only the humane but the intelligent option. Taking all flocks of chickens and hens inside - as some of the big commercial farms are beginning to do - may be a sensible option, but it is, inevitably, short term. Organic breeding centres, which rely on having their animals outdoors, would lose their special status. The task of policing thousands of domestic flocks up and down the country would be well-nigh impossible. Defra, the department responsible, is unlikely to be trusted if owners know that owning up to having a few hens in the backyard means that they are likely to be killed. If, however, a vaccination policy were introduced, most farmers would willingly subscribe to it. They vaccinate farm animals the whole time - it is part of their routine. As one veterinary expert put it:"If Defra has time to rush around killing things, then it has time to rush around vaccinating them instead."
No one is suggesting that there is any alternative to disposing of a poultry flock once the infection has been detected within it. But there must be a limit to the killing. Those who suffered the trauma and the tragedy of the slaughter last time will simply not tolerate the arbitrary 3km zones, the bungled science and the sheer incompetence that accompanied it. Science this time is firmly on the side of vaccination. Unlike FMD, the H5N1 virus is a potentially lethal pathogen, not just for birds but for human beings. It could yet mutate into a form that might be transmitted by people as well as by the birds themselves. Vaccination would help to slow this process down; it would reduce the rate at which a new virus was produced, as well as the number of replications of the old one. It is a means of keeping ahead of an epidemic rather than fighting it on the back foot.
Defra opposes this because it argues that avian flu might then become endemic in Britain, that its presence would be"masked", not disposed of. But that is to misunderstand the science, which now gives us the means of detecting the difference between a vaccinated animal and an infected one, and would allow us, once the disease has been contained, to breed it out.
Defra, as the Newcastle University report pointed out, has a responsibility to look at the overall impact of its policies on rural communities, not just to fire-fight a disease once it has taken hold. It should be a pioneer in animal science rather than holding it back. It should be prepared to learn the lessons of the past, not to ignore them. It should be on the side of life not death.