The Department of Health is reassuring the public, all poultry keepers and those involved in the slaughter of the 159,000 turkeys that the risk of contracting the H5N1 strain of avian influenza is negligible.

 

A spokesperson for the DoH told Farmers Weekly that the risk of infection was so low that only those “incredibly close” to the infected birds were at risk. 

 

“Even then you would have to be drinking infected blood or eating infected faeces to be at risk,” said the spokesperson.

 

But, it is taking few chances.  By the time the cull finished on Tuesday morning (6 February) those involved in the slaughter and disposal of the birds had received the seasonal flu vaccination as a precaution and the majority had also received the antiviral drug Tamiflu. 

 

And, as a further precaution, all poultry keepers have been offered the seasonal flu vaccination.  The DoH has also stockpiled 14.6m doses of Tamiflu – enough to treat a quarter of the population – at a cost of £120m as well as 3.7m doses of H5N1 vaccine.

 

The H5N1 supplies may be used to conduct further research on the immune responses generated by these vaccines. In the event of a pandemic, these stocks could be used to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers (such as nurses) before a specific pandemic vaccine can be developed.

 

Health officials fear that if an individual were to contract the seasonal form of the virus and then come in to contact with the H5N1 strain it could mutate in to one easily transferable between humans initiating a pandemic. 

 

Currently the disease is not easily transferred between humans and the 165 people known to have died from it are believed to have contracted it from working closely with infected animals – notably infected faeces.

 

By chance the DoH, Home Office and DEFRA held a mock response exercise last week to evaluate its contingency plans.  “It was pure fortuitous timing on our behalf,” said the DoH spokesperson.  Called Winter Willow the event was the basis for a dry-run of the government’s response to an outbreak of avian flu. The concluding part is planned to take place later this month.

 

The DoH has also drawn up and offered contracts to drug manufacturers to deliver sufficient vaccine to treat the population of the UK once the human form of the virus becomes established.

 

“Much of this is supposition as we don’t know which strain will develop, but what we are dong is getting all our ducks in a line in preparation,” said the spokesperson.

 

“The extent of our preparation was recognised by a World Health Organisation report that concluded the UK was at the forefront in its preparations to deal with an outbreak of the human form of H5N1,” added the spokesman.

 

For more information on the avian flu outbreak see Avian flu: UK special report.

 

For Poultry World editor Richard Allison’s take on the media messages coming through about the avian flu outbreak see the Food For Thought blog.