12th July, 2006: LONDON, UK - The U.K. is seeking 10 million extra doses of vaccine that may be used to immunize poultry against bird flu after the lethal H5N1 strain of the virus was reported for the first time in Spain last week.
The vaccine will protect fowl and other captive birds against H5 and H7 subtypes of avian influenza, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, known as Defra, said yesterday. The inoculations will be used only if a risk assessment and scientific evidence indicate they will help to prevent the spread of the disease, it said.
``This is part of sensible contingency planning in the light of uncertainties about the future spread and nature of the virus and the possibility of as yet unforeseen circumstances,'' Defra said in the statement posted on its Web site.
Governments and international health authorities are trying to prevent the spread of H5N1, which has the potential to mutate into a pandemic form that may kill millions of people. Outbreaks among domestic fowl could also devastate the poultry industry in the U.K., Europe's second-largest, because of consumers' fears about the safety of the meat.
Almost all human H5N1 cases have been linked to close contact with sick or dead birds, such as children playing with them or adults butchering them or taking off feathers, according to the WHO. Thorough cooking of meat and eggs kills the virus.
A flu outbreak killing 70 million people worldwide may cause global economic losses of as much as $2 trillion, the World Bank said last month. Since late 2003, H5N1 is known to have infected at least 229 people, mainly in Asia, killing 131 of them, the World Health Organization said on July 4.
Infection in Spain
The U.K. reported an initial H5N1 infection in a dead swan found in Scotland in April. Spain confirmed the infection July 7 in a great crested grebe found dead at Salburua Lake, near the city of Vitoria in the northern Basque country.
No outbreaks among commercial poultry flocks have been reported in the U.K., which slaughtered more than 889 million fowl for meat production last year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. France slaughtered almost 998 million fowl in 2005, according to the FAO.
The U.K. government sought to increase its supplies of poultry vaccine on the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer, as a precaution, Defra said.
It doesn't signal a change in policy and the Chief Veterinary Officer's advice remains that poultry shouldn't be vaccinated in advance of an avian influenza outbreak because of the ``well documented limitations of the vaccines currently available,'' the department said.
``These vaccines are not the most effective defense against avian influenza,'' it said. ``Early reporting, rapid action, biosecurity, culling and surveillance remain the most effective ways of controlling an avian influenza outbreak.''
Human H5N1 cases may be harder to detect in countries where the vaccination of poultry is poorly implemented, the influenza team at the European Centre for Disease Surveillance and Control in Stockholm said last month.
Earlier this year, the U.K. bought 2.3 million doses of vaccine which are being stockpiled in the event zoo birds become at risk of infection.
Last week, Defra said the risk of avian flu re-entering the U.K. will be higher between August and November, when wild fowl typically fly through the country during winter migration.
In France, poultry producers hurt by a slump in demand reportedly lost 40 percent of their income in the first quarter of 2006, said Milan Brahmbhatt, a lead adviser for the World Bank in the East Asia region.
Europe's $42 billion poultry feed industry has suffered a 40 percent drop in demand in some European Union countries, Brahmbhatt told a conference in Paris on June 29.