Sunday, April 09, 2006

100,000 children in bird flu risk

THE government has made plans for the mass closure of schools, amid warnings that 100,000 children might die if the bird flu virus mutates into a human pandemic.

The chief medical officer for England and Wales, Sir Liam Donaldson, has advised the government that shutting schools could halve the number of pupils who would be killed if the bird flu virus mutates into a form that is transferable between humans.

There is no firm evidence that the H5N1 strain of bird flu can pass between people. But there are fears it might mutate or mix with human flu viruses to create a new virus.

In a letter to schools minister Jacqui Smith, Donaldson wrote: "Until the pandemic virus emerges, we cannot know for certain which groups would be most vulnerable. If all age groups were affected equally, and the virus was particularly severe (ie at the upper end of our assumptions), the excess deaths in school-age children could be as high as 100,000. This would mean that potentially 50,000 deaths might be prevented by school closures."

A Scottish Executive spokesman said no detailed plans had been made to close schools north of the Border, but it was "one of many measures" being considered by ministers, if the H5N1 virus mutates into a form potentially fatal to humans.

It was also reported last night that off-duty firemen and retired lorry drivers will be pressed into service to ensure deliveries of essential food supplies in the event of a bird flu pandemic.

In Fife yesterday, residents in Cellardyke were being monitored by health officials in case any showed signs of symptoms caused by H5N1.

Hospitals and doctors have been placed on alert to be prepared to quarantine patients suspected of suffering from the early stages of the virus. Locals from the village who came into close contact with the dead swan have been advised to check their temperature twice a day and report to a doctor at the first signs of coughing, sore throat or fever.

Doctors are also to visit all residents who went near the swan to take blood samples to ensure no one is carrying the virus without suffering any symptoms. Dr Harry Burns, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, said: "If there is any evidence that they have a temperature or other symptoms then they will be given prophylaxis [a drug to prevent infection developing].

"If a patient is identified as having been in close contact with infected birds then they will be isolated and placed under close surveillance."

Meanwhile, Chief Veterinary Officer Charles Milne revealed yesterday that tests on the dead swan had given scientists clues to where the virus had come from. He said it was almost identical to the version of the virus found during an outbreak of H5N1 which affected more than 100 birds on Ruegen Island, off the north-east coast of Germany, in February.

Last night David Nabarro, the UN's chief coordinator on bird flu, said the death of the Scottish swan suggested other birds were carrying the viurs in Britain. He said: "The one swan is a good indicator there will be other species, like ducks and geese, that are flying around carrying H5N1, excreting it in their faeces and therefore also capable of getting infection into domestic poultry and into other species."

Scientists were last night testing dead birds from a further 30 locations around Cellardyke, following reports from members of the public.

Officials said the number of reports of dead birds to their helpline had soared since the presence of virus was confirmed last week. But they said no further suspected cases had yet been found.

The eight Scottish laboratories which can test for bird flu will stay open this weekend and at Easter to cope with the number of dead birds being reported. The move comes after concerns over delays in getting the results back from tests on the dead swan.

Scientists at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge have been told to prioritise tests on dead birds from Scotland ahead of those from elsewhere in the UK.

Scotland On Sunday

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