Thursday, April 06, 2006

On being a wise Little Pig

A new outbreak of bird flu in a German poultry farm is being reported on the news wires. Reports of new outbreaks of bird flu, even in the European Union, are becoming almost routine and we certainly don't report most of them. Why this one, then? First the details.

The Financial Times and Reuters both reported the outbreak yesterday, saying it has killed 20 turkeys on a farm and that tests were underway to determine if it is the highly pathogenic Asian strain of H5N1. Confirmation has now come from the German national reference laboratory. The isolates are being sent to the WHO reference laboratory in the UK to allow an official tallying.

The authorities acted swiftly, culling the entire flock of over 16,000 chicken, geese and turkeys. The large farm is located in Saxony in an area that has not reported bird flu in wild birds, although about 200 cases of H5N1 have been reported in other areas of Germany. Germany's birds have moved indoors and biosecurity measures put in place, but the geese on this farm had a slight waiver from total lock-up to take water outdoors or they would not lay eggs. They were housed separately from the turkeys and had no contact with them.

Germany has been one of the more vigorous countries in its biosecurity measures. Not only have thousands of dead birds been checked for H5N1 but testing was done on this flock as recently as two weeks ago and showed no signs of the virus or antibodies to the virus (Deutsche Welle). It is not at all clear what the mode of transmission of the virus was. One suspicion is that a worker may have inadvertantly carried it in on his clothes or shoes. On the other hand, the head of the Friedrich-Löffler Institute, the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health, told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung he wouldn't rule out the disease being spread by a cat in the poultry holding (Euroactiv). (They have cats wandering among the poultry chicks? Sounds like pretty good guard duty, if you're a cat.) At this point it seems they don't have a clue as to how the virus got into the flock.

We are reporting this event to suggest that the belief of the US poultry industry that its unevenly applied biosecurity measures will prevent infection of its flocks is really "whistling past the graveyard." In whatever way this virus is getting around in the bird population, it is doing so quickly and efficiently, spreading into thirty new countries in the last three months. Regarding the implications for a human pandemic, the most apt simile this week comes from Dr. Roger Glass, the new director of the Fogarty International Center at the U.S. National Institutes of Health:
"I think of it as the earthquake in San Francisco. You know it's on the fault. You know it's going to occur, but you can't tell if it's going to occur this year or next year or the year after," [he] said . . .

"But it's clearly going to happen and the only way you can prepare is to build your houses with structure." (AP)
Like the wisest of the Three Little Pigs, it's time to build our house with structure.

A pot of boiling water in the fireplace wouldn't be a bad idea, either.