Feb 28, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Europe braced for further spread of the H5N1 avian influenza virus today in the wake of reports that the virus was suspected in the deaths of two wild ducks on Sweden's Baltic coast and a domestic cat in Germany.
The cat was discovered last weekend on Ruegen, the island off Germany's north coast where H5N1 was first discovered on German soil, according to a Reuters report.
Cats have been known to contract the H5N1 virus before. For example, a zoo near Bangkok, Thailand, lost 147 tigers to H5N1 and subsequent culling after they were fed chickens in October 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement issued late today.
Albert Osterhaus, a virologist with the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, told Reuters he was not surprised by the cat case.
"People should keep their cats inside in regions where the disease was found," Reuters quoted Osterhaus as saying. "Cat-to-human transmission is theoretically possible and not to be excluded. We have seen cat-to-cat transmission in laboratory experiments."
But the WHO sought to allay concern about avian flu in housecats. "There is no present evidence that domestic cats play a role in the transmission cycle of H5N1 viruses," the agency said today. "To date, no human case has been linked to exposure to a diseased cat. No outbreaks in domestic cats have been reported."
Avian flu apparently can spread from birds to cats, but there is no evidence that cats are a reservoir for the virus, the WHO said. There have been a few reports of infected housecats in recent years; in all of them, eating raw infected poultry was the most likely cause of infection, the agency said.
In other outbreak news:
- Two wild birds in the south German state of Bavaria were found to have H5N1, Bloomberg News reported today, marking the spread of the virus in five of Germany's 16 states.
- Iraq was investigating three possible human cases in Baghdad and one in the province of Diyala, in the northeast, Reuters reported. The WHO has already confirmed two human deaths from avian flu in Iraq.
- Ethiopia suspects an avian flu virus is behind the deaths of more than 6,000 chickens in the Southern Nation and National People's state, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). Samples are being sent to a laboratory in Italy to determine the virus subtype, said the agriculture and rural development ministry spokesman, Mulugeta Debalkew. The affected farm is 110 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, AFP reported.
- Ethiopia's southern neighbor, Kenya, has said that dead poultry found in Nairobi did not have H5N1, according to a separate AFP report from Nairobi today. However, the story did not mention what testing method was used, and Kenyan authorities did not say what did kill at least 400 chickens dumped in a residential area of the capital city last weekend.
- While Pakistan awaits test results to determine the neuraminidase type in its confirmed H5 cases, culling has begun at the two affected farms, according to the United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) today. About 25,000 birds were culled as a precautionary measure, according to Pakistan'slivestock commissioner, Dr. Muhammad Afzal. Pakistan has said that early tests found evidence of a mild H5 virus, but, Afzal told IRIN, "It's better to take an international opinion as well, so we have sent the samples to Britain."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was quoted by Reuters today as saying that the virus is spreading relentlessly.
"Every day there's another country . . . and it's going to go all the way across (the globe), there's no doubt about it," Fauci said at a conference on avian flu in Washington, DC.
WHO worried about Niger
In addition, the WHO today issued a situation update on the H5N1 poultry outbreaks in Niger. It reads like a grim prediction, echoing the concerns of many experts about the presence of the lethal virus in Africa:
"Detection of the virus in Niger confirms fears that conditions in West Africa, including late detection of outbreaks, the fluid movement of birds across borders, and low population awareness of the disease, will favor spread to additional countries. Experience in all affected countries has shown how easily and rapidly the virus can become established in birds when detection is late and the introduction of control measures is delayed."
Possible outbreaks in other African countries are under investigation, the WHO noted, and many countries' responses are hindered by nonexistent early-warning systems in people or humans, poor diagnostic capacity, and difficulties shipping specimens.
In addition, WHO said the virus found in Africa is "virtually identical" to the viruses known to be lethal to people.
Noting that Africa's roughly 1.1 billion chickens are mostly produced on backyard farms, the agency said, "Concern that human cases may occur in affected parts of Africa is high, given the close contact between people and poultry. . . . Each additional human case gives the virus an opportunity to evolve toward a form that spreads easily from person to person."
FAO fears economic toll of avian flu
The WHO's sister agency, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), voiced concern today about the global economic toll of avian flu. The FAO said unwarranted fears of disease transmission are reducing demand for poultry, undercutting prices and industry profits and hurting family livelihoods and job opportunities in developing countries.
The agency said it "expects poultry consumption shocks this year in many countries in Europe, Middle East, and Africa that have been hit by avian influenza. As unfounded fears of disease transmission reduce consumption and imports, lower domestic prices are forecast to limit production growth."
FAO commodity specialist Nancy Morgan commented, "A steady erosion of previously expected gains in per caput poultry consumption will likely push down global poultry consumption in 2006, currently estimated at 81.8 million tonnes, nearly 3 million tonnes lower than the previous 2006 estimate of 84.6 million tonnes."
The agency said poultry consumption recently dropped 70% in Italy, 20% in France, and 10% in northern Europe after the discovery of avian flu in those places. In India, poultry prices have dropped about 12% as result of sinking demand. And in the United States, the price of broiler chicken parts dropped 13% as a result of declining shipments to Eastern Europe and Central Asia in November and December.
About 200 million chickens have died of avian flu or been killed since the onset of the crisis late in 2003, the FAO said.
Health authorities have said repeatedly that people run no risk of acquiring avian flu from eating poultry and egg products, provided they are handled and cooked properly. Yesterday, WHO Director General Dr Lee Jong-wook reaffirmed this, saying, "Globally, the evidence demonstrates that there is no risk of infection when birds and eggs are well-cooked, as this kills the virus. Poultry products are important sources of protein throughout the world."
Feb 28 WHO statement on avian flu in cats
Feb 28 WHO statement on H5N1 in Niger
Nov 22, 2004, CIDRAP News story on tiger infections
Feb 28 FAO statement