Little risk for Bernard Matthews workers

There is almost no chance of workers involved in the culling of turkeys at the farm hit by bird flu catching the disease, the Health Protection Agency said today.

There is almost no chance of workers involved in the culling of turkeys at the farm hit by bird flu catching the disease, the Health Protection Agency said today.

Bernard Matthews workers in teams of 30 have been working round the clock to cull the birds at the giant farm in Holton, near Halesworth.

Around 100 workers had been given anti-viral drugs and the seasonal flu vaccine to protect them against the disease. Workers have been issued with protective clothing, goggles and masks and a spokesman for the Health Protection Agency described the risk to them as “infinitesimal”.

He said: “The risk of humans contracting H5N1 is very low.

“People who have contracted the disease in Asia and the Far East have tended to live very close to their animals which they keep in their gardens and houses. Also in the Far East people buy live chickens and slaughter them themselves, exposing them to blood and faeces.

“No-one working on a farm in Europe has contracted H5N1. With the case in Turkey, children were playing with dead carcasses. If people are wearing personal protection, goggles and masks the chances of them getting the infection are infinitesimal.”

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The spokesman said that one Bernard Matthews worker had complained of feeling unwell on Saturday and was taken to hospital as a precaution.

“A risk assessment of the worker showed they had not been working in the part of the farm where the affected birds were. The assessment showed they had not been exposed and therefore had not been infected and that one was ruled out.”

The spokesman said the workers had been provided with a ten-day course of anti-viral drugs. He said the number of workers being issued with medication was expected to rise to 200. Avian flu, like standard flu, had an incubation period of about 7-10 days.

Most of the 1,000 strong workforce at the factory in Holton has been told to stay at home, while some have been sent to work at the company's factory in Great Witchingham.

Meanwhile concerned residents living near the factory at the centre of the outbreak have complained that there still had not been anyone in touch to tell them what to do.

Suffolk County Council trading standards department said that it sent scores of officials into the surrounding area from Sunday morning to talk to people who may be worried and advise those with small flocks of chickens.

But last night even small farms just half a mile away had not been visited by anyone from Defra or the council.

And Bernard Matthews was being seen as a weak link in the communication chain - coming in for criticism for not even keeping the council informed as to what was happening on its farm. It has made few public statements about the outbreak.

County councillor for Halesworth Wendy Moore said Waveney District Council, the county council, the State Veterinary Service, Defra and trading standards had all worked together brilliantly.

But she said: “I am concerned that Bernard Matthews have not been in contact with us. I would like to see more communication in the future.”

David Bedser, who runs Laurel Farm, which borders the factory, said that despite having around 450 pigs, and keeping a small flock of geese, no one from Defra or the council had been to see him.

He said: “You would have thought that as we are really close to the factory someone would have been round by now. They don't know if we have chickens in the back garden or not.

“The geese are shut up now, but they were in the field at the back all last week during the time we now hear there were ill birds at Bernard Matthews. And if the wild bird population here has the disease, they might have picked it up from that,” he said.

He added: “I don't know if my geese are in the all clear. All I have to go by is the website which says to keep them inside.”

Around four miles away on the edge of the exclusion zone, chicken farmers Tina and Carl Frost, said no one had been to see them either.

Mrs Frost said she had had to ring Defra to find out what to do when she heard the news on Saturday morning, despite being registered as a chicken keeper with over 50 birds.

The couple felt that it would have been reassuring if someone had been to see them, but they had been repeatedly told to check the internet ­­- which they do not have.

“Defra just assumes everyone will be on the internet,” she said.

But Jill Corwin, assistant head of trading standards for Suffolk County Council, said the response had been swift and efficient as they had been practising for a year for the eventuality of the illness being found. In fact a practice run was due to be carried out this week, she said.