FAO warns H5N1 may be lurking in Europe

Oct 26, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Apparently healthy domestic geese and ducks in Europe may be harboring the H5N1 avian influenza virus, posing a risk to other poultry and to humans who have contact with them, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in a statement yesterday.

In some parts of Europe the disease could become endemic in poultry populations, much as it has in some Asian countries, as well as Egypt and Nigeria, the FAO said. The agency said its warning was prompted by the detection of H5N1 in diseased domestic ducks by German scientists. The researchers also found that asymptomatic ducks on two farms had antibodies to the H5N1 virus.

"It seems that a new chapter in the evolution of avian influenza may be unfolding silently in the heart of Europe," said Joseph Domenech, the FAO's chief veterinary officer, in the statement.

If evidence confirms that the H5N1 virus can persist in apparently healthy ducks and geese, regions that have significant duck and geese production will need to reinforce their monitoring and surveillance systems, he said.

Further waves of H5N1 avian influenza throughout Europe, occurring from east to west, could occur if the virus persists throughout the year in domestic waterfowl, Domenech said.

European countries that have experienced H5N1 outbreaks this year include Russia, England, Hungary, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Germany, according to previous news reports. In September, German officials found the H5N1 virus in frozen duck meat.

Many experts see the links between chickens and domestic ducks and geese as a factor in H5N1 outbreaks in other countries where the virus is endemic, the FAO said.

Jan Slingenbergh, an FAO senior animal health officer, said in the statement that the agency is particularly worried about the Black Sea area, which has high concentrations of chickens, ducks, and geese.

The Ukraine has about 20 million domestic ducks, and Romania's Danube delta has about 4 million domestic ducks and 4 million domestic geese, he said. "These figures compare easily with chicken and waterfowl densities in Asia, where the virus continues to circulate among chickens and has found a niche in countries with tens of millions of domestic ducks and geese," Slingenbergh said.

The Black Sea is a wintering area for migratory birds from Siberia and other locations, the FAO said, pointing out that all countries bordering the Black Sea have had avian flu outbreaks, along with poultry systems with poor separation between wild and domestic birds.

"It could well be that there is more virus circulation in Europe than currently assumed," Slingenbergh said. Though it doesn't appear the virus is widely spreading in European countries, "undetected localized virus spots in countries with significant waterfowl may pose a continuous risk," he said.

In other avian flu news, agriculture officials in Myanmar reported an H5N1 outbreak at a large poultry farm in Bago, about 50 miles from Rangoon, the capital, according to an Oct 24 report from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The outbreak, which began Oct 19, struck 400 birds, including quail, layer chickens, and ducks. The remaining 33,459 birds were destroyed.

The report said the town is close to a lake that is home to wild birds, including about 800,000 ducks. Infected ducks probably transmitted the virus to quail or chickens, the health officials reported.

Myanmar's last reported outbreak occurred in late July, also near Bago, according to a previous OIE report.

Elsewhere, officials in Vietnam announced today that an H5N1 outbreak has been reported in a third province, Cao Bang, in the northern part of the country near the Chinese border, according to a Reuters report. The outbreak affected 480 ducks and 80 chickens in 13 households in Cao Bang's Trung Khanh district, according to Xinhua, China's state news agency.

Yesterday, Vietnamese officials reported an H5N1 outbreak had killed hundreds of ducks in Quang Tri province in the central Vietnam, about 360 miles south of Hanoi, according a report from Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). The ducks were among a flock of 600 5-day-old ducklings, Nguyen Quan Vinh, head of the province's animal health department, told DPA.

Earlier this month another outbreak was detected in Tra Vinh province in the Mekong delta, the DPA report said. According to an Oct 11 OIE report on the outbreak, the virus killed 40 unvaccinated ducks; the remaining 296 birds were culled. Before this month's outbreaks, Vietnam's last reported outbreak occurred in August, the OIE reported.

See also:

Oct 25 FAO statement
http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2007/1000685/index.html

2007 OIE reports
http://www.oie.int/downld/AVIAN%20INFLUENZA/A2007_AI.php

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