Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Avian Flu May Have Spread to Spain by Wild Birds, Society Says

Avian Flu May Have Spread to Spain by Wild Birds, Society Says
July 10 (Bloomberg) --

Spain's outbreak of avian flu may have been introduced by wild birds that carried the virus from the Mediterranean, a U.K.-based conservation society said.

The Ministry of Agriculture confirmed the infection July 7 in a great crested grebe found dead at Salburua Lake, near the city of Vitoria in Spain's northern Basque country. It was the first time the H5N1 avian influenza virus was reported in Spain, Europe's biggest tourism destination by revenue.

``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,'' Richard Thomas, a spokesman for Cambridge-based BirdLife International, said in a July 7 statement.

Governments and international health authorities are monitoring for the H5N1 virus, which has the potential to mutate into a pandemic form that may kill millions of people. This year, almost 40 countries reported initial outbreaks in domestic fowl and wild birds, including France, Italy, Egypt and Nigeria.

Since late 2003, H5N1 is known to have infected at least 229 people, mainly in Asia, killing 131 of them, the World Health Organization said on July 4. Almost all human cases have been linked to close contact with sick or dead birds, such as children playing with them or adults butchering them or plucking feathers, according to the Geneva-based WHO.

The disease in birds creates more opportunity for human infection and increases the risk of the virus changing into a pandemic form.

Bird Species

Identifying the subspecies of Spain's infected grebe and its age will be essential in determining the source of the virus, BirdLife said.

``Birds from sub-Saharan Africa are subtly different from those found in Europe, and have never been recorded north of the Sahara,'' Thomas said in the statement, which was posted on the society's Web site. ``Even a North African origin is highly unlikely'' because only a handful of great crested grebes nest there, he said.

If the grebe was hatched this year, it indicates a local source of infection because the bird is unlikely to have flown outside Spain, Thomas said. It's also possible that H5N1 was brought to Spain by imported poultry products, he said.

In February, 21 metric tons of poultry meat illegally imported from China were confiscated in the eastern seaside city of Benidorm, BirdLife said.

Illegal Imports

``Perhaps H5N1 arrived in Spain the same way it got into Africa -- in imported chicken products,'' Thomas said. ``But even if it was smuggled in, it's difficult to see how it could have ended up in a grebe. It would be useful to know the circumstances under which the bird was discovered.''

Spain's H5N1 outbreak occurred on June 30, Lucio Ignacio Carbajo Goni, deputy director general of animal health in Madrid, told the World Organization for Animal Health in a July 7 report.

The H5N1 infection may hurt poultry sales in Spain, Europe's third-largest producer of the meat.

In Romania, which has reported more than 100 H5N1 outbreaks in the past three months, domestic poultry sales have fallen by 80 percent, bringing many producers to the verge of bankruptcy, Milan Brahmbhatt, a lead adviser for the World Bank in the East Asia region, told a conference in Paris on June 29.

French Producers

In France, Europe's largest poultry supplier, producers hurt by a slump in demand reportedly lost 40 percent of their income in the first quarter of 2006, Brahmbhatt said. The $42 billion poultry feed industry in Europe has suffered a 40 percent drop in demand in some European Union countries, he said.

There isn't any risk in eating poultry or eggs that are properly cooked because the virus is destroyed at temperatures above 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit). The World Tourism Organization said it's safe to travel to countries that have reported avian flu as long as tourists avoid close contact with birds.

Spain gets 46 billion euros ($59 billion) in revenue a year from foreign tourists and the industry makes up about a 10th of gross domestic product. Most tourists come from the U.K., Germany and France. Hotel companies such as Sol Melia SA and airlines including Iberia Lineas Aereas de Espana SA depend on tourism for profit growth.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jason Gale in Singapore at j.gale@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: July 10, 2006 00:07 EDT

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