Delays in poultry workers' flu jabs

MARK NICHOLLS Health trusts in the region were last night accused of failing to take urgent action to prevent bird flu crossing over to become a human condition.


Health trusts in the region were last night accused of failing to take urgent action to prevent bird flu crossing over to become a human condition.

Primary care trusts (PCTs) were alerted in December to the need to vaccinate poultry workers against seasonal flu as a crucial move in preventing a virus such as H5N1 mutating into a condition affecting humans.

But the EDP has learned that Norfolk PCT and Yarmouth and Waveney PCT have yet to start immunising poultry workers, despite being warned by the Department of Health to make a “prompt start” to the operation on January 22.

The trusts say it takes time to plan and set up such a programme; also that poultry farms have been slow in forwarding details of workers to have the jab.

But Liberal Democrat health spokesman and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he was disappointed that the local trusts - covering areas where there are thousands of poultry workers - had not yet started the immunisation, and that even the outbreak at the Bernard Matthews plant at Holton, near Halesworth, had still “not triggered any sense of urgency”.

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His concerns are echoed by Norfolk doctors' leaders.

The concerns come as the factory at the centre of the bird flu outbreak gets back to running as usual from today - the first time since all 160,000 turkeys on the adjacent farm were killed.

And the European Commission said last night that no link had been found between a bird flu outbreak in Hungary and a similar virus on the Bernard Matthews farm in Suffolk. The DoH spells out the risks of failing to immunise poultry staff in a document to trusts. Its advice says: “Working in close contact with poultry means there is a slight risk that workers could catch the bird flu virus if an outbreak of bird flu were to occur. If they were also infected with human flu at the same time, the bird and human flu viruses could mix in their body to make a new flu virus.”

The advice went out ahead

of the Suffolk outbreak confirmed on February 2, but the DoH has said there are no plans to change the guidelines to care trusts. A spokesman added: “There are no plans to make seasonal bird flu vaccinations compulsory for poultry workers.”

Mr Lamb has written to health secretary Patricia Hewitt saying: “I would be grateful if you could respond to concerns that PCTs may not be taking the advice of the Department of Health seriously enough with regard to the immunisation of poultry workers.” Last night, he said: “Once the Holton outbreak had happened you would think everyone would have to take this seriously, but it does not appear that this incident has triggered any sense of urgency.”

The NFU is urging its members to bring the immunisation programme to workers who are affected.

Doctors leaders have also expressed concern at the lack of progress being made in immunising poultry workers.

Dr Ian Hume, chairman of Norfolk Local Medical Committee, which represents GPs in the county, said: “In an ideal situation we would have seen the full immunisation of the poultry workforce before the outbreak. The benefit of immunising poultry workers is that they will be prevented from getting flu and therefore they cannot mix with infected birds which carry avian flu. This would prevent the flu virus from jumping to become a human strain.”

Norfolk PCT confirmed it intended to start offering the seasonal flu jab to all poultry workers from next week

There are 3,500 registered poultry workers in Norfolk, and those who have registered for a vaccination will be contacted by the PCT. It said the strategy would be complete by the DoH deadline of March 31.

Waveney and Yarmouth PCT said that, of 115 farms with poultry workers in its area, only 20 had responded.

But a spokeswoman added: “Since the outbreak further poultry farms have been contacting the PCT. The PCT is reviewing premises that have not been in touch and will be contacting them again. But it has become much more imperative because of the outbreak at Holton.”

The trust hopes to immunise those already identified for vaccination by the end of next week.