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New Bird Flu Strain Reaches Europe

In this April 13, 2014 photo provided by Kumamoto Prefecture, local government workers in white protective overalls line up to be sprayed disinfectant in Taragicho, Kumamoto Prefecture, western Japan. The 112,000 chickens were ordered culled on Monday, April 14 after two chickens tested positive for a highly pathogenic avian influenza at a farm in the town. (AP Photo/Kumamoto Prefecture)

A new strain of bird flu – known as H5N8 – has been detected in Europe. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says it poses a serious threat to poultry there. African countries have been put on alert for possible cases.

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The FAO’s Ian Douglas says researchers have been monitoring the spread of H5N8.

“We have been following this particular strain for quite some time. It’ been detected in Asia – in China, Japan and South Korea. It’s caused disease in poultry in those countries and has been detected in wild birds there. It’s related to the influenza strain that spread across the world in the mid-2000s, but it is a different virus.”

Douglas is head of the FAO’s Crisis Management Center for Animal Health. He said, in Asia, the new bird flu strain led to the slaughter of poultry on farms where it was discovered, along with quarantines and some temporary restrictions on trade.

“There’s much more work that’s done in the lead-up to that and, in part, this is involving better detection, better surveillance and good laboratory diagnostic techniques,” he said.

H5N8 was also found in migratory birds and waterfowl in Asia. It’s now in at least three European countries.

“It’s been reported in the last two or three weeks from Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. And each of those countries as it’s affected a poultry unit has responded with their well planned and executed response techniques. And certainly they’re increasing their level of awareness and surveillance. In addition, we’ve heard that some wild bird surveillance has resulted in this virus being detected,” said Douglas.

This strain of avian flu is said to pose a threat especially in countries along the Black Sea with limited resources and along East Atlantic migratory routes of wild birds.

Douglas said the spread of H5N8 appears similar to what was seen in the mid 2000s with the H5N1 strain. So, countries outside of Europe are on alert.

“Certainly, in those instances it did spread to some of the countries, for instance, in West Africa. The H5N1, with a great deal of work from all of the countries and agencies involved, has been limited now to many fewer countries than occurred initially. And we’ve not seen a reoccurrence of H5N1 in West Africa, for instance, since the initial spread some six years ago. But there’s every reason to be concerned that we could see a repeat of that pattern with this different strain,” he said.

Avian flu viruses spread very quickly and there’s usually a very high mortality rate among poultry. Some fowl, like ducks, may carry the virus, but show no symptoms. However, they can spread the disease.

Asked if H5N8 poses any threat to humans, the FAO official said, “There is no evidence with the limited experience of this virus that any humans have been infected. It’s believed that the nature of the virus is not well adapted to invade human cells. However, we’re conscious that other influenza viruses have made that cross and in some cases causing severe illness in humans. We very much take the advice of WHO on this point for the moment. Their statements are that they don’t see a human impact.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization is working with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in tracking the new strain of avian flu. They urge countries and poultry farmers to increase – what’s called – bio-security, which is the protection of agricultural animals from infectious agents.