UK experts try to plot flight path for bird flu

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BRITISH bird experts were last night checking the flight paths of migrating birds as the first case of deadly avian flu was confirmed in France.

Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the death of a wild duck in the south of France, the closest case yet to Britain, had increased the chances the virus will arrive in the UK.

Scientists are plotting migration routes to predict where bird flu might enter the country. If the cold, continental winter continues, more wild birds are expected to fly into Britain seeking milder temperatures.

The French agriculture ministry confirmed last night that the presence of the highly-pathogenic H5N1 virus was found in a duck, which was found dead last Monday on a bird reserve 20 miles north of Lyon.

A three-kilometre protection zone has already been set up around the outbreak area as well as a seven-kilometre deep surveillance zone. France, Europe's largest poultry producer, is the seventh country on the continent to be hit so far by the bird flu virus. Along with the Netherlands, it has applied to the EU to start preventative vaccination of domestic birds in some areas.

The French poultry industry supports 900 million birds on 200,000 farms.

Yesterday, further cases emerged around Europe including 28 wild birds diagnosed with the H5N1 virus on a north German island where dead swans and a hawk were found last week to have the disease.

Tests on a swan found dead in the Austrian capital, Vienna, also revealed it had been infected with the virus and the Austrian government yesterday warned farmers to keep all their poultry stock indoors.

India has also recorded its first cases of H5N1 bird flu in chickens on a farm in western Maharashtra state, while officials also said eight humans were being tested for the disease. A cull of up to 500,000 domestic birds has been announced.

Iran confirmed its first cases of H5N1 in its northern province of Gilan, while Indonesia confirmed a man, aged 23, had become the country's 19th bird flu fatality.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that if the winter on the continent eases, wild birds will not need to fly west. If it continues, however, they could head to Britain.

Fred Landeg, Britain's deputy chief veterinary officer, said officials were examining flight paths and weather patterns in a bid to predict whether the virus will arrive on British shores. So far, 3,500 samples from wild birds in the UK had not yet detected H5N1.

"The expert ornithologists have advised that ducks from the Lyon region do not normally fly to the UK at this time of the year," Landeg said.

"Yet we know that the pochard duck uses the East Atlantic flyway, which is the same migratory path under which the UK lies.We have existing robust surveillance measures in place and have taken over 3,500 samples from wild birds, which so far have not detected H5N1 in the UK."

The H5N1 strain has killed at least 90 people worldwide, mainly in south-east Asia, since it emerged in 2003. It can infect humans in close contact with infected birds, but there is no evidence that it can be passed from human to human. Public health experts, however, fear the virus could mutate into a pandemic human flu strain that could cause millions of deaths.

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