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Outbreak of bird flu puts health officials on high alert

HEALTH and agriculture officials were last night on high alert after the first case of bird flu was detected here in 14 years.

Measures are being put in place to prevent the spread of bird flu to humans after the virus was discovered in a flock of pheasants kept by a gun club in Clonakilty in West Cork.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre said last night it was mainly an animal-health issue with no risk to the general public.

However, precautions, including the provision of anti-viral preventive medicine, were being taken for those coming into contact with infected birds.

The pheasants, which had been kept in an enclosed premises, were slaughtered yesterday and a 1km restriction zone has been put in place around it to test for further cases.

The United Nations warned on Thursday that a new mutant strain of the deadly H5N1 virus was circulating in south-east Asia where eight people have died of it already this year.

However, the department here said preliminary tests this week had indicated that while the Cork pheasants had the H5 strain of avian flu, it was not the deadly H5N1 strain.

Although nothing can be ruled out until final tests results are in, it would be "highly unusual" for a new strain from Vietnam to suddenly spread to Ireland as no cases had been reported anywhere inbetween, a department spokesperson said.

Further laboratory test results to confirm the exact strain are expected within days.

Avian flu caused a major health scare in Ireland in 2006 to 2007, as worldwide cases spiralled, leading to 331 human deaths globally.

However, despite high alerts and dire warnings of the risks it was not detected in this country, and the last Irish outbreak was in 1998 involving a less pathogenic strain.

Problems

Chicks on a poultry farm close to the new outbreak in Clonakilty are being tested for avian flu and they will not be allowed move from the farm or enter the food chain until they are found to be safe.

Officials said this was purely precautionary as there was no indication of problems.

"It is important to note that there is no concerns relating to the consumption of poultry meat or poultry-meat products and there are no restrictions on poultry movements outside the 1km restriction zone," a statement said.

The initial outbreak was discovered by a local Department of Agriculture vet who investigated the matter after hearing anecdotally that a number of pheasants had died at the premises.

Gun clubs often keep penned pheasants, which are hand-reared for later release into the wild during the hunting season.

Birdwatch Ireland said such birds were usually purchased as eggs or as chicks in Ireland or Britain, which may make it easier to trace the source of the infection.

Spokesman Niall Hatch urged birdwatchers in Cork to be on the alert for clusters of dead birds this weekend.

Officials are now investigating where the pheasants may have picked up the virus.

Flockowners and people having contact with birds have been warned to be careful, even though it was not the most highly pathogenic strain.

They should ensure appropriate biosecurity measures are in place and check birds regularly, reporting to their regional veterinary office if a high number of sick or dead birds are found.

The last highly pathogenic outbreak of avian flu dates back to 1983.

The Irish Farmers Association urged poultry farmers and their families to be extra vigilant.

Irish Independent