Bird Flu Touches Europe's West Coast, Wild Bird Dead in Spain

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 12, 2006 (ENS) - Avian influenza is creeping slowly westward across Europe. Farther west than any country where the deadly bird flu has been identified before, Spain has just confirmed its first case of the H5N1 virus.

Spanish authorities informed the European Commission on Monday that a dead great crested grebe, Podiceps cristatus, found a wetland in the Basque country of northern Spain, tested positive for the H5N1 virus.

The virus was confirmed by the National Laboratory at Algete near Madrid, and a sample also was sent to the European Community Reference Laboratory for avian influenza in Weybridge, UK for further tests to determine if this is the H5N1 strain of the virus that has been responsible for more than 200 million bird deaths in Asia since the latest outbreak began in 2003.

Spain is the 14th European Union member state to report a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 in wild birds. The other countries are Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, France, Slovakia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.

The H5N1 virus was confirmed in poultry in five EU Member States - France, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Hungary.

The World Health Organization calls this outbreak of bird flu "the largest and most severe" on record. Previously, outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry and wild birds were rare, but since December 2003, some 45 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East have reported outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza in poultry and/or wild birds.


Great crested grebe with chicks in a Spanish wetland (Photo credit unknown)
A total of at least 80 species of wild birds have been found to be infected by the H5N1 avian influenza virus. At least some migratory waterfowl have carried the H5N1 virus in its highly pathogenic form, sometimes over long distances, and have infected poultry flocks in areas that lie along their migratory routes, according to the World Health Organization.

So far 10 countries have recorded human cases; none of them in Europe. Most of the people who have contracted the virus handled infected poultry or their excrement.

Still, there have been several cases of human to human transmission among family members. Health officials fear that that H5N1 will mutate into a virus that is easily transmissable among humans, starting a global influenza pandemic.

The grebe was found at Salburua Lake near the city of Vitoria, and officials are attempting to determine whether it was infected locally or if it migrated from Africa, bringing the infection with it.

"There are some puzzling questions aspects to this case, and we hope that ornithologists will be allowed to examine the corpse for clues," said Dr. Richard Thomas of BirdLife International. "Too often, invaluable information as to the source of the virus in wild birds has been wasted because appropriate experts have not been called in."

For example, correct identification of the species involved is vital, said Thomas, then if it is a great crested grebe, determining the subspecies involved is essential.

Birds from sub-Saharan Africa are subtly different from those found in Europe, and have never been recorded north of the Sahara, said Thomas. Even a North African origin is highly unlikely, he said, as only a handful of great crested grebes nest there.

"The one thing that we can be sure of is that this grebe is very, very unlikely to be a migrant from sub-Saharan Africa," Thomas said.

Another clue is the age of the affected bird, Thomas explained. If it was hatched in 2006, it indicates a local source of infection. Young grebes will only just have fledged and great crested grebes are not migrating in early July. In fact, he said, birds in northern Spain are regarded as sedentary.

Some reports indicate the corpse was found six weeks ago, placing the time of death sometime in May. "Perhaps the most likely explanation is that it was one of the scattering of wild birds killed by H5N1 this spring in Europe - possibly a bird that wintered in an affected part of the Mediterranean," Thomas said.

The Spanish authorities are taking precautionary measures to limit the spread of the disease. They have established a high risk area three kilometers (two miles) around the site where the grebe was found and a surrounding surveillance zone of 10 kilometers.

In the protection zone, poultry must be kept indoors, movement of poultry is banned except directly to the slaughterhouse, and the dispatch of meat outside the zone is forbidden except where products have undergone the controls provided for in EU food controls legislation. The meat must be sourced from healthy animals in registered farms, subject to ante and post mortem checks by vets in the slaughterhouse.

The H5N1 virus is killed by cooking meat and eggs thoroughly, according to guidelines issued by the World Health Organization. The virus is inactivated at a temperature of at least 70 degrees Celsuis at the center or when no part of the meat is pink.

In both the protection zone and the surveillance zone, on-farm biosecurity measures must be strengthened, hunting of wild birds is banned, and disease awareness of poultry owners and their families must be carried out.