EU reports 741 H5N1 cases in wild birds since February

Jun 1, 2006 (CIDRAP news) – The European Commission (EC) reported yesterday that 741 cases of H5N1 avian influenza have been detected among about 60,000 wild birds tested in European Union states since February.

The EC presented its data during the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) International Scientific Conference on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds, which concluded yesterday in Rome.

In other news from the 2-day conference, scientists reported that the spread of avian influenza has been aided by the legal and illegal trade in wild birds, according to news agencies. Meanwhile, experts are trying to define the role that migratory birds play.

The EC and the Community Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza in Weybridge, UK, began testing wild birds in all European Union (EU) states in July 2005. The EC, in a press release yesterday, said that, though final figures are still being collected for recent months, 741 wild birds in 13 member states tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza between February and May 21 of this year. Most of those were confirmed to be H5N1 cases. About 60,000 birds were tested in that period, and about 99,000 over the entire 10 months of testing.

Germany had the most cases, with 326, followed by Austria (117), Poland (64), France (62), and Denmark (42), the EC reported. EU member states reporting from 1 to 32 positive tests were the United Kingdom, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden, and Greece.

Cases of H5N1 peaked in March, with 362, and have gradually declined since then, with 162 in April and 17 in the first 3 weeks of May, according to the EC. The third week of February was the most active week, logging 116 cases, while February as a whole witnessed 200 cases.

Swans made up 62.8% of the wild birds found to be infected, the EC said. Other kinds included ducks, 16.3%; geese, 4.5%; birds of prey, 3.9%, and various others, 13%.

The EC said only four outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu have been found in domestic poultry in the EU, and all were swiftly eradicated. Romania, which has reported numerous poultry outbreaks in recent weeks, is not an EU member.

"Extensive surveillance for avian influenza in wild birds and poultry has been one of the key tools used by the EU to fend off the virus over the past months," said EC Commissioner for Health and Human Protection Markos Kyprianou in the press release. "We cannot let our guard down when it comes to avian influenza, as it is likely to remain a threat for Europe and the rest of the world for many months to come."

Animal trade and avian flu spread
Scientists at the Rome FAO/OIE conference cited the legal and illegal trade of wild birds as playing a significant role in spreading avian influenza, according to a report yesterday from Bloomberg news service.

"We have to focus on this issue of trade, because it's the most frequent way of spreading disease from one region to another," said FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech in the Bloomberg story. "This includes legal and illegal trade, which is quite significant and often ignored."

The Bloomberg report said that each year about 350 million live animals are moved worldwide to become pets or serve other domestic needs, at a cost of about $20 billion. About a fourth of these animals are transported and sold illegally, according to the story.

"Focusing efforts at markets to regulate, reduce, or, in some cases, eliminate the trade in wildlife could provide a cost-effective approach to decrease the risks in disease for humans, domestic animals, and wildlife," Domenech told Bloomberg.

Domenech, according to an Agence France-Press (AFP) story from yesterday, also discussed the role of migratory birds. The main problem, he said, is that scientists don't know with certainty whether wild birds can act as long-term reservoirs for H5N1.

"We still have a long way to go to fully understand the disease," he said in the AFP story. "Before saying there is no role for wild birds in Africa, we should be careful. We have to wait a little bit."

Domenech told AFP that one of the main achievements of the Rome conference was to gather people from the poultry trade, wildlife experts, and policy makers to begin a discussion on how avian flu travels long distances.

"We have identified gaps and the need to continue and intensify research, in particular with regards to the species which can be involved [in spreading the virus]," Domenech told AFP.

See also:

European Commission press release

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