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Doing the Doable. Avian Flu Erupts in East Anglia - 06/02/2007
 
Snags for Deniers that H5N1 Poses no Threat. Global Warnings... VEGA surveys the latest threats from avian flu and some more positive developments.
1. Last Tuesday morning, the 30th January, 71 dead birds were found on the Bernard Matthews farm at Holton in Suffolk. It is near Halesworth, and not far from Southwold, which is farmed for Adnams brewery and for its delights for tourists and foodies. The next day there were 186 deaths and on Thursday, 860 birds had died. By the time vets from DEFRA called for assistance by a private practitioner arrived the toll had mounted to 2,600 deaths. Blood from the corpses was sent to the labs, where it was found on the Friday night that avian flu had struck and just before Saturday, the 3rd February, confirmation that it was the highly pathogenic H5N1 variant was established. These events ensued shortly after an emergency exercise, Winter Willow, to prepare civil servants, government agencies, and the emergency services for a large-scale pandemic scenario. The second phase of this exercise was due later this month; it was intended to test the effect that rapid spread of a potentially deadly mutated strain of the H5N1 virus would have on the country's services, economy and society. The outbreak at Holton may provide a foretaste or worse of such a catastrophe.

2. The turkeys at Holton had been kept in 22 houses each containing about 7,000 birds. The premises are like many others in East Anglia and built along now-unused WW2 runways on airfields used by British and American aircraft and by other Allied airforces. On Saturday the 3rd February DEFRA and the police declared a surveillance zone in a 10km (6 mile) radius around the affected farm, within which other poultry farmers were ordered to keep all their stock indoors and away from wild birds. Movement of birds was also restricted, except for slaughter. Wild flocks were being watched for signs of avian flu and clues on their movements. DEFRA was about to announce similar restrictions to a much wider area covering east Suffolk and southeast Norfolk. Anyone finding wild gulls, waders, ducks, geese, or swans within that zone has been requested to phone DEFRA on 08459 335577. All but essential movement in and out of the farm at Holton has been stopped. Visitors are being disinfected. Anyone with poultry within the restriction zone of 800 sq miles has been told to keep them inside and out of the way of wild birds, ensuring that they weren't sharing water supplies. Birdwatchers at a wetland area close to the farm were replaced by DEFRA officials on the look out. Up to about 60 staff at Holton have been offered the antiviral drug Tamiflu at an emergency clinic in the nearby market town of Halesworth. Vaccination is not being resorted to. Pigeon racing, birdshows and, we presume, shoots in the restricted areas will be banned (the season for pheasant shooting has just ended). Schools may have to be closed and their catering modified. Keepers of ornamental and hobby flocks will also be affected. Cats carry disease, but pet owners are not at the moment receiving any warnings.

3. Vets garbed in protective suits and wearing masks have been making preparations for the slaughter of the remaining 159,000 birds on the farm. They will be collected in crates and transferred into a newly-designed mobile gas chamber to be suffocated by argon gas. The carcases will be incinerated. (We note that poultry "waste" is used in the furnaces of electricity generators - biofuel - in East Anglia). These events and probably sequels demonstrate challenges to animal welfarists, "organics", foodies, and environmentalists, and they throw special responsibilities on advocates of free range systems and owners of backyard flocks. The birds at Holton were 56 days old and housed in an enclosed environment. They were a month away from slaughter. Stores of feeds and bedding (poultry - litter) may be contaminated (clothing nad footwear may be contaminated with dried feces and fomites).

4. The major supermarkets and DEFRA and Matthews' officials are assuring the public that the danger has been contained. However, they fear a collapse of the poultry market on the basis of comparable events in other EU countries. Poultry exports from the UK to the rest of the EU may still proceed, but other countries may jib at imports of British meats, arguing that the UK's Biosecurity has failed again. Waterfowl are suspected as the likeliest carries of infection. Ducks and geese carry the infection with little sign of disease; domestic birds are much more vulnerable.

The Spread of the Disease

5. So far, H5N1 has spread through two main routes: other birds and the international agriculture industry. Migration of wild flocks from an epicentre in China in the summer of 2005 at a remote body of water in northwest China called Qinghai Lake started it, as far as we know. In the autumn H5N1 spread progressively westward, first through Russia and then to Turkey and on to Romania, it then turned off to Egypt and Nigeria. A year ago cold snaps drove wild birds carrying H5N1 across Europe, as far as Germany and France. Soon after this, a dead swan infected with the virus was found in Fife, Scotland. In the other theory bird flu is seen to spread by the global trade in eggs, chickens, and other poultry products such as manure. It is said to flourish in factory farms. "This view has been promoted by bird charities, which have an obvious interest in minimizing the culpability of their feathered friends - but it also has some independent support" (The Independent on Sunday, 4th February 2007).

6. An official journal in the USA suggested that trade was mainly to blame for the spread of the virus from China to Vietnam and Indonesia, where it has killed most people. Factory farms are seen as ideal breeding grounds and centres for deadly mutations. In the past 30 years battery chicken farming has multiplied 8-fold in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia; in the 1990s alone it tripled. Qinghai Lake was surrounded by many intensive poultry farms and is near a fish farm, where chicken faeces may have been used as a food. The outbreak at the Suffolk farm may have started by dried feces carried on a worker's boots and walked into a shed or by ingress of an infected wild bird, eg through a ventilator. The virus can survive for a month in droppings. It spreads rapidly and can wipe out a flock in 48 hours, usually though multi-organ failure or pneumonia. The dreaded version of H5N1 in people causes severe flu-like symptoms, with high fever, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, headache, sore eyes and muscle aches. Over half of the human victims die; the young and healthy are especially vulnerable. The WHO warns that this year may see a recurrence of the spread last year across countries in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and into Europe. The government's "prudent" forecasts for an outbreak of a mutated virus loose in the UK estimated that as many as 320,000 people could die. The thrall of the postwar pandemic in 1918-1919 of Spanish flu endures.

7. Human deaths by country due to the H5N1 virus are as follows:

Indonesia 63
Vietnam 42
Thailand 17
China 14
Cambodia 6
Azerbaijan 5
Turkey 4
Iraq 2
Nigeria 1

The death in Nigeria, reported last Saturday, the 3rd February, by the WHO was the first mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. The victim was a 22-year-old woman from Lagos, Nigeria. This occurrence is serious in a continent where epidemics of plagues and disease are very difficult to control and overcome. H5N1 has infected 270 people, mainly from close contact, of whom 164 have died. A study published last week in Science explains how easily the protein coat of viruses can facilitate their power to infect cells lining the respiratory tracts of birds. Acquiring new genes that changed the coating enabled it to infect people and to jump between the species involved. An H7 virus also carries severe threats. In May last year more than 50,000 chickens were culled after an outbreak of H7 bird flu in farms in Norfolk. An outbreak of H7 on a Dutch farm in 2003 led to 80 people being infected and to the death of a vet. The first case of H5N1 in the 27-nation EU this year occurred among geese at a farm in Hungary; 3,300 geese were culled. The H5N1 virus is the same as the pathogen at Bernard Matthews' plant in East Anglia. Suspicions of a transfer of infection within the firm's international operations - by movements of staff, eggs, or breeder stock - remain unconfirmed by present evidence.

The Enormity

8. The turkey's miserable life illustrates evils foretold in Ruth Harrison's vivid and challenging book Animal Machines, which prompted official attention by the Brambell Committee and the beginnings of what has become the Farm Animal Welfare Council, an independent advisory body to the government. The turkey hens, being too "breasty" for normal copulation, are artificially inseminated to ensure consistent fertilization and, it is said, to avoid injury. Eggs from the breeders are collected by conveyor and taken to the hatchery where they are incubated in conditions to ensure good development of the embryo. The poults hatch after about 28 days. Poults are reared initially under heat lamps. The turkeys on the Holton farm are reared in 22 poultry houses, each 500m long and holding 7000 birds. Their diet comprises mainly cereals, to which vitamins, amino acids, and fish meal are added. Birds slaughtered at 13 to 20 weeks are inspected by a vet before being shackled and electrocuted by contact with a water bath to stun them prior to killing by a throat cut (sticking) and bleeding out. Further processing entails immersion in hot water to loosen the feathers in readiness for mechanical plucking. Heads and guts are removed before packing and sale. Mortality rates running at over 5% during a period of growth to slaughter weight are common in the industry, so there are always appreciable daily culls. The usual rates at Holton have not been disclosed. At first the mortality rate in the shed on the site was attributed to an outbreak of E. coli; later the diagnosis was changed to Newcastle Disease, then the possibility of avian flu dawned.

9. Bernard Matthews has been highly successful as a businessman. He was appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) in this year's New Year's Honors List. His name and firm have not enjoyed a salubrious reputation, notwithstanding nutritional acclaim for poultry as a cheap and healthy meat lacking some of the objections to red meat (even if introducing others of its own). In 2005 Turkey Twizzlers exemplified the undesirability of components of school meals and were withdrawn. Last September two employees in a Matthews plant were secretly filmed playing baseball with live birds in a turkey shed at Haveringland. Both men pleaded guilty but claimed that they had been caught up in "the culture of cruelty" at the farm. Some comments have been made over delays at Holton in calling in the State Veterinary Service and at the prevailing high rate of mortality in the sheds there. In an outbreak of H5N1 in Turkey we note that children caught bird flu and died after playing with the heads of sick chickens. Bernard Matthews runs his 57 farms in ways that meet and exceed official standards for protecting against bird flu, but DEFRA has still been worried enough to begin monitoring the health of the workers at Holton.

10. Of the 8 million turkeys eaten in Britain on Christmas Day, about 2.7 were from Matthews' farms. Sales of turkeys in Britain are rising 6% year on year. The Matthews empire has more than 7000 workers worldwide and produces nearly 15m turkeys a year, 9m in the UK and 5m in Hungary. He has a cooked meats operation in Germany and processing plants in New Zealand that export 1m lambs each year.

11. Sales of poultry meat in the UK are worth £270m a year and sales of live breeding birds and hatching eggs and day-olds about £100m. A third of the trade is in the Far East involving large quantities of poultry legs and wings. An export trade worth about £370m a year is now threatened. Japan has already declared a ban on imports. The Conservative Party, one of whose advisers on agricultural policy is John Gummer, an East Anglican MP and Agriculture Minister notorious during the BSE crisis, is "to ask the government to draw on EU funds to offer compensation to poultry farmers in the region who will be affected by movement bans and lack of exports." It may take at least 6 months before lost export markets are resumed. This area of East Anglia is being challenged by proposals to dismantle commercial buildings and release land for housing and domestic purposes.

12. The whole poultry industry in the UK, which includes egg production and processors, is a market worth £3.4bn. It is facing competition from imports of poultry products, especially in prepared foods from southeast Asia and Brazil, as well as within the EU. The industry is concentrated, for several reasons, notably proximity to seaports bringing in feedstuffs, in counties along the eastern seaboard. This distribution overlaps the highest concentration of the movements of migratory birds in England. It seems that the industry may be able to claim compensation from the Government for the birds confiscated by the State Veterinary Service and even to indemnify itself against public claims in connexion with the nuisances it has created. The whole nation, especially politicians and critics, must also bear in mind the costs and duties these enormities load on to the emergency services and NHS. The Animal Welfare Act 1981 entitles farmers compensation for all healthy birds slaughtered to control diseases, among which avian flu is included. Eight hundred million birds, including spent hens, are slaughtered annually in the UK for their meat. The industry also provides day-old male chicks and cullings, trimmings, and flip overs from growing flocks and egg production for feeding to snakes, raptors, and carnivores in zoos and circuses.

Doability for DoGooders

13. VEGA has been involved and been very busy in the last few weeks in meetings with doctors, vets, virologists, and other non-commercial bodies in precautions and actions to take officially and individually if a pandemic of avian flu or the like developed in a raging mutated form. Why us? Presumably because of our involvement, particularly on the welfare of non-human animals, in the McLibel case, the BSE Inquiry, the Animal Welfare Act and the Farm Animals Welfare Council. Apart from provision of drugs, vaccines and medical paraphernalia, we took special interest in means of culling (of non-human) animals - domestic and wild - in epidemics and pandemics on these vast scales. Poultry were among other species we had in mind. Doctors argued for a corps of psychiatrists to comfort farmers whose flocks, herds, and livelihoods were destroyed in such disasters. Destruction of live animals in plague-pits and industrial killing in gas chambers or in some mechanical way had to be considered. Neck wringing of poultry on this scale is impractical. Reports from Asia and the USA suggest that burying live animals in great numbers has been practised. The prospect of closure of schools seemed a useful mark of shame for the enormity behind cheap food and corrupted farming.

14. The Government's scenario envisages a "clinical attack rate" of 25% to 30% of the human population. Plans for coping with an epidemic suggest that the public may have to be shown how to dispose of the bodies of family members killed by the disease. Putting "A New Kinder Farming" and linking with a Portfolio of consumer lifestyles must engage effective boycotts beyond committee meetings and feeble compromise. In this respect the public of customers, consumers, and do-gooders must be rated Poor Doers.

15. Congratulations, then, to Ben Bradshaw, a DEFRA minister for alluding to the possibility of rationing: "food production does just as much damage as private production and housing", he says. A new Government website has him advising shoppers to help the planet by avoiding meat, cheese, and even veg grown out of season: www.direct.gov.uk/greenerfood makes it clear that eating beef, lamb, chicken, and dairy products contributes to global warming because of the energy needed to rear animals. Sheep and cows also emit harmful methane gas. The environmental domain is not complete without respect and kindness for the "other" animals. What a fine essay question for all levels of scholastic endeavour - and household purchases. Discuss!  
 
 

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