Bird flu "could return" to Switzerland

Bird flu was found in wild birds last year in Switzerland (Imagepoint)

The Swiss authorities are not ruling out more bird flu infections, one year after the first case of the deadly form of the virus was detected in the country.

This content was published on February 26, 2007 - 07:49

Since then the Swiss have implemented a series of measures against bird flu and are carrying out wide-ranging surveillance. No cases of high-risk types of the virus have been recorded in Switzerland since October last year.

On February 26, 2006 the first case of avian flu was confirmed in a wild duck at Lake Geneva. More cases followed at Lake Constance in the German-speaking part of the country.

A total of 32 wildfowl tested positive for the H5N1 virus between the end of February and March 31.

Federal Veterinary Office spokesman Marcel Falk said that last year's cases were only in wild birds, not poultry.

He said since October 2006, 433 wild birds had been tested, but no case of H5N1 had been uncovered. However, further cases in 2007 could not be ruled out.

"This winter is exceptionally warm and our expectation is that if there is a winter with snow, then there is a great possibility that this year we will also have wild birds with bird flu," he told swissinfo.

Mild winter effects

The unseasonably mild weather means slightly fewer wild birds have migrated for the winter, according to the Veterninary Office. The virus also tends not to spread as much when it is warmer.

"We still have a lot to learn about the spreading of bird flu by wild birds," Falk said. To this end, the Veterinary Office started a research project around Lake Constance in October 2006.

Falk added that bird flu was still present worldwide, with recent outbreaks in Europe in Britain, Hungary and Russia.

Officials therefore remain vigilant. The outdoor ban on poultry kept within a one-kilometre radius of major Swiss lakes and rivers, implemented by the government last October, will run until April 30 this year.

The restrictions – although not as stringent as last year – are designed to prevent domestic flocks coming into contact with migratory birds infected with H5N1.

Switzerland's summertime waterfowl population of 50,000 normally swells to 500,000 during the winter migration to Africa.

Constant checks

Falk said the Veterinary Office was constantly checking the situation and whether the outdoor ban was necessary. A decision cannot be made until the end of March when it is clear how the winter and bird flu situation are developing.

Samples are being taken from live birds on lakes Constance and Sempach during the winter months. Similar checks are being carried out on birds shot by hunters on lakes Geneva and Neuchâtel. In addition, any groups of dead wildfowl found in Switzerland will be tested.

Also in force is a ban on all poultry imports from infected countries outside the European Union, mostly in Asia and Africa, where there have been human deaths from the disease. Controls at airports have been stepped up.

In October Switzerland became the first country to confirm it would stock a pre-pandemic vaccine against the human form of bird flu as part of its extended pandemic plan.

It has stockpiled two million doses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu and ordered SFr180 million ($150 million) worth of pre-pandemic and pandemic vaccines.

But the Veterinary Office is keen to stress that the risk to humans from the virus is minimal.

"As long as bird flu is an animal disease there is practically no risk for humans in Switzerland," said Falk.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Key facts

According to the latest WHO update, there have been 274 human cases of bird flu in ten countries since 2003, with 167 deaths.
Most fatalities have occurred when humans have been in close contact with infected poultry.Health experts fear the H5N1 virus will eventually mutate into a form easily transmissible among humans.
No cases of the human form of bird flu have been reported in Switzerland.

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Bird flu in Switzerland

Between the end of February and March last year 32 cases of the H5N1 bird flu virus were diagnosed, one on Lake Geneva and the rest in the region around Lake Constance.

The authorities called for calm, but said they had expected the virus to reach Switzerland.

Total bans on keeping poultry outdoors have been implemented twice in Switzerland: end of October to mid-December 2005 and mid-February until the end of April 2006.

This latest partial ban on poultry kept outdoors will run until April 30 this year. It affects 1,000 professional farmers and 4,000 amateur poultry keepers.

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