Experts confirm Asian bird flu outbreak

Government scientists have confirmed that the potentially deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu found at an East Anglian poultry farm after 2000 turkeys died is the highly pathogenic Asian strain.

Government scientists have confirmed that the potentially deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu found at an East Anglian poultry farm after 2000 turkeys died is the highly pathogenic Asian strain.

Scientists from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were called to the Bernard Matthews factory in Holton, near Halesworth, late on Thursday, and preliminary tests confirmed a bird flu outbreak. Today this was confirmed as the H5N1 strain - and the same strain as the one which killed poultry workers in Asia - after tests were carried out at the European Union laboratory in Weybridge.

But Government officials were keen to reassure the public there was no need to panic, as the risk to humans is “negligible”. And Jill Corwin, assistant head of trading standards at Suffolk County Council, also stressed the minimal risk of infection to humans.

Vanloads of turkey workers from the factory were taken to Cuttlers Hill Surgery in Halesworth for protective jabs today. Others of the 1000-plus workers are being traced and offered protection.

Thousands of turkeys are being destroyed at the factory, which has more than 20 sheds, although only one shed was affected. Emergency measures have been put in place to shut down the movement of poultry. Automatic measures include a 1.8 mile protection zone around the site, which must be in place for at least 21 days, and a monitoring area of at least a further 4.5 miles.

Poultry must be kept indoors and movement of poultry is banned, except directly to the slaughterhouse. Extra security measures are required in both zones.

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The Environment Agency has opened an incident room and specialist staff will be drafted into the team to help coordinate a response to the outbreak.

The Government's deputy chief veterinary officer Fred Landeg said all 159,000 turkeys on the farm would be slaughtered as a precaution and that he was hopeful the outbreak would be contained. The animals had come from a hatchery in the UK, none had been moved off the farm and early indications were that this was a recent introduction of disease.

He said the countryside was still open, and urged poultry farmers to increase measures to protect against the spread of the disease.

Maria Zambon, from the Health Protection Agency, reassured British consumers that poultry was still safe to eat, as there was no evidence that avian flu could be contracted from food.

A Bernard Matthews spokesman said: “While Bernard Matthews can confirm that there has been a case of H5N1 avian influenza at its Holton site, it is important to stress that none of the affected birds have entered the food chain and there is no risk to consumers.

“Bernard Matthews is working closely with Defra and other industry bodies to contain the infection. The company meets and in many cases far exceeds Defra's bio-security standards for combating avian flu.”

It is the second time in less than 12 months that an East Anglian poultry farm has been hit by bird flu, but the first time the H5N1 strain has been found. Nine months ago there was an outbreak at farms in North Tuddenham, near Dereham, but the disease was the H7N3 strain of bird flu and not the H5N1 variety which has killed more than 100 people worldwide.