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Poultry farmers flock to conference

Poultry breeders are putting on a brave face Keystone

Swiss farmers turned up in droves to the annual poultry conference on Wednesday to find out how they could prevent their flocks from catching bird flu.

This content was published on March 1, 2006 - 18:20

On the same day that the country announced its second case in wild birds, some participants said they were worried, while others were optimistic that the situation could be managed.

The programme for the conference in the Swiss capital, Bern, had already been amended earlier this week to take into account the discovery of Switzerland's first case of the deadly H5N1 strain in a dead duck near Lake Geneva on Sunday.

The Federal Veterinary Office said on Wednesday that another case of H5 had been found in a dead swan near Lake Constance.

So far no domestic fowl in Switzerland have tested positive for the disease.

Unruffled

The Jean Soller farm is located within a stone's throw of Egnach, canton Thurgau, where the second bird flu case was discovered. However, farm workers there seemed remarkably unruffled by the disease making tracks into the country.

"Our position is that the risk is controllable and we are very much against vaccination," representative Willi Neuhauser said.

Compared to the country's neighbours, Switzerland has high standards when it comes to hygiene, explained Neuhauser.

As far as his farm of 20,000 laying hens was concerned, there are strict rules in place to prevent viruses or bacteria from being transmitted by employees' clothing and footwear.

"Now that we know that transmission of bird flu can occur through contact with faeces, [we are being extra careful about] washing hands, changing clothes and shoes [when going from one enclosure to another]," Neuhauser said.

Christian Griot, head of the national laboratory for highly contagious animal diseases, revealed during the conference that a gram of infected excrement had the potential to infect one million birds.

To vaccinate or not

Featuring prominently on Wednesday's agenda was vaccination. The message from the co-organiser, the Federal Veterinary Office, was clear: vaccinating flocks was out of the question.

"We associate vaccination with the vaccines we had as children, which protected us from diseases like polio but this is not true [for avian influenza]; there is no vaccine against H5N1," the veterinary office's director, Hans Wyss, told the audience.

Griot said that there were vaccines for other types of avian flu on the market, which could be used against H5N1, but they were not suitable for vaccinating whole flocks.

There were two considerable disadvantages to vaccinating poultry on a large scale – first, there was no guarantee that vaccinated birds would not later become infected with H5N1 and second, tests could not distinguish between infection from vaccination or from an outside source.

One concerned farmer suggested that the issue of vaccination was important to consumers and could help retain confidence in poultry products.

Wyss disagreed, stressing that any anti-bird flu measures should be the result of an objective, scientific discussion.

"It should not boil down to a question of the consumer deciding whether or not they prefer to eat meat from vaccinated animals," said Wyss.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

In brief

The European Commission has permitted France and the Netherlands to vaccinate flocks against bird flu.

No vaccinations have taken place as of yet.

The Commission decision has been criticised by many experts, such as Bernard Vallat, head of the world organization of animal health, the OIE. He told France's Le Monde newspaper that such a solution should be only "the last resort for a country that can't control the situation by culling and movement controls."

This is a position shared by the Swiss veterinary authorities.

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