British expert in bird flu spread warning

September 5, 2005

Brussels, 02 Sep 2005

A biologist from the University of East Anglia (UEA) has warned that a far wider range of wildlife species, including mammals, could be at risk from bird flu. Three rare civet cats in Vietnam died of bird flu in June.

Dr Diana Bell, of UEA's School of Biological Sciences, says the discovery that avian flu was responsible for the death of the civet cats raises important questions about the range of wildlife species that could now be at risk from the virus.

Civet cats, tree-dwelling animals with a raccoon or weasel-like face and a catlike body, are distant relatives of the domestic cat, but more closely related to the mongoose. Civets are often captured in the wild, and are served as a delicacy in restaurants in Vietnam and China. Scientists suspect that civets and other mongoose-like animals are also the origin of the transfer to humans of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people worldwide in 2003.

Reuters quotes Do Van Lap, a manager at the park, as saying, 'How they were infected remains unknown as they were raised together with 20 other civets, their cages close to each other, but the remaining civets are strong.' Mr Lap said initial suspicion fell on park staff members who lived in a village where some chickens had died, but tests did not find the virus. He says the civets were not fed chicken.

The flu virus was already known to be capable of infecting a number of bird species, but this raises important questions about the susceptibility of mammals. 'Vietnam and the other Asian countries chronically infected with avian flu are biodiversity hotspots rich in species, many only occurring in this region,' explains Dr Bell, whose team has been working with the Vietnamese government, the World Health Organisation and the University of Hong Kong to confirm the cause of death in the endangered Owston's palm civets. 'The focus so far has been on poultry and human health, and there has been no screening of mammals in that region. The discovery of avian flu in a new family of mammals highlights the possibility that the virus may be capable of infecting other mammal species,' she says.

In an Associated Press (AP) report, Scott Robertson, technical adviser for the civet conservation programme at the park, commented, 'It's another good example of how dangerous this thing [the H5N1 virus] is.'

The H5N1 bird flu strain has killed or led to the slaughter of millions of poultry stocks in parts of Asia. A total of 57 deaths and 112 confirmed cases in humans have been reported to the WHO, leading to fears of an influenza pandemic, with 80 per cent of these cases reported in Vietnam. So far, humans have only contracted bird flu after coming into contact with infected animals. The real fear is that the virus might develop into a form which can be transmitted from person to person.

At the end of August, the UN food agency warned that bird flu virus is likely to spread to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, urging nations at risk to step up surveillance and prepare national emergency plans. In the EU, scientists are closely monitoring the situation, and the adequate and timely supply of vaccines and anti-viral drugs is part of the EU preparedness and response plan dealing with the disease.
For further information, please contact:
Diana Bell, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 1603 505334 or +44 7736 325079

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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