Bird flu scare proves false alarm

  • 2007-07-25
  • By Kimberly Kweder

VILNIUS - A strange noise coming from a group of sick and injured cormorants on the Kaliningrad section of the Curonian Spit over the July 21 - 22 weekend sparked fears of an H5N1 avian flu outbreak, but test results showed no signs of the deadly virus strain.
Vidmantas Paulauskas, Deputy Director of the State Food and Veterinary Services in Vilnius, said he was in close contact with the veterinary services in the exclave for developments, and he learned that specialists conducted laboratory tests which proved negative.

"The birds were too young and unable to fly against the strong storms hitting the region," Paulauskas said, regarding the consensus among the Kaliningrad scientists.
Russian services checked all reports made by residents of the Curonian Spit regarding the dead birds. Specialists took samples of bird carcasses and shot several live cormorants for analysis.
Since the cormorants have a migration pattern crossing from Russia to Nerija in Lithuania, the deputy director said the State Food and Veterinary Services in Klaipeda captured several birds from the Curonian Lagoon for examination, and the test results were also negative.
Klaipeda's Vakura Eskpresas daily reported on July 20 that there was a  "massive" scale of dying cormorants, and an ornithologist from the National Park of the Curonian Spit said he believed the birds suffered from hunger or starvation.
Avian influenza results from many forms of the virus, but the deadly H5N1 strain does not spread successfully from person to person.

Public health specialist Grazina Rimseliene of Lithuania's Center for Communicable Diseases, Prevention and Control said the probability of humans contracting avian influenza is small, but that precautions should nevertheless be taken.
"You still need to take measures," she said. "Do not touch any birds if they are dead, call any veterinarian station if they appear sick, and wear protective personal equipment when handling them."
No instances of birds infected with the H5N1 strain of the virus have been found in the Baltic countries to date, though wild birds have been found to be carrying the disease in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. An avian influenza outbreak occurred at two poultry farms in Romania's countryside last year. Scientists worry waterfowl like the cormorants could carry the deadly strain to new areas along migration routes.
Dr. Mecislovas Zalakevicius, Chief Researcher and Head of the Avian Laboratory of Vilnius University, said he isn't sure how many of the cormorants exist in Lithuania.

"The cormorants are a large colony competing with the fishermen," he said.
Other migratory birds are also a concern. Paulauskas said the veterinary institution has analyzed 300 samples from wild waterfowl and no unusual cases were found in the country.
"For the moment, it is quite calm. We will introduce some new systems in the near future, hunting wild waterfowl and testing them," he said.

As of June 29, the World Health Organization has confirmed 317 human cases of H5N1 since 2003. The nearest to the Baltic states were in Turkey and Azerbaijan, who recorded 12 and 8 cases respectively.
The highest number of cases is in Indonesia, where 80 people have died of the disease.