MUCH TO the relief of Portugal’s health authorities, just an hour prior to this edition going to press, it was announced, following laboratory tests, that dead seagulls and geese found washed up on Monday of this week (October 24), on a stretch of shoreline between the beaches of Consolação and Molhe Leste in Peniche (north of Lisbon), were not victims of bird flu.
Despite the reprieve, further precautions have been introduced to reduce the risk of an outbreak. These include a ban on the sale of live birds in markets and the prescription of an anti-flu drug for at risk groups.
The Director-General of Health, Francisco George, now says that the drug Tamiflu will be given to people deemed to be most vulnerable to the lethal H5N1 bird flu strain, particularly bird keepers. George said it would be given to risk groups – “employees who would have direct contact with infected birds” – as well as people who could, conceivably, come into contact with infected patients. “This medication can be administered only in specific situations, namely those in which employees are deemed susceptible to contracting the illness,” he said.
The Health Ministry has also announced it has received offers of co-operation from various pharmaceutical firms, domestic as well as foreign. The Pharmaceutical Industry Association and the
National Association of Pharmacies have also volunteered to begin to distribute the medication free of charge to vulnerable groups.
Ban enforced in open markets
Agriculture Minister, Jaime Silva revealed that the National Laboratory of Veterinary Investigation (LNIV) is performing 100 tests a day on dead birds submitted for analysis by local authorities. Meanwhile, a ban on the sale of live birds in markets was enforced last weekend following a EU directive. At one such market, São Pedro market in Sintra, incredulous vendors expressed anger at the ban. “Why do they prohibit us from selling birds if the virus has not yet even arrived in Portugal?” asked one trader. “They could have warned us at the beginning of the morning that we would be unable to sell chickens”. Other traders raised the question of compensation for loss of earnings resulting from the ban, a question currently being debated in the EU’s Council of Ministers.
Tests on sea birds as farmer is interned
The ominous news that dead birds, discovered in Peniche, were being tested for bird flu, triggered extended news coverage on national television. But avian experts considered the situation “normal”, citing the natural mortality rate among marine bids every year. “Most of these arise between September and January in any case,” said a source.
Another case involving chickens
In a separate development, a man from Santa Maria da Feira was admitted to hospital after his chickens died for no apparent reason. But health authorities stress that the farmer was showing the symptoms of no more than a common cold, and that he had walked into the clinic unaided. “He was a little feverish but he was not manifesting the symptoms of bird flu. Even so, we did not want to run any risks and we are awaiting test results,” said the clinical director of São Sebastião Hospital, Hugo Meireles. “The situation is under control and poses no risk to the public,” he added, stressing that the patient had been given Tamiflu as a precautionary measure. At the time of going to press the results of tests carried out on the patient were still unknown.
Outbreak could lead to slaughter of “millions” of birds
Despite calming words from the authorities, Agriculture Minister Jaime Silva has admitted that, in the event of an outbreak, all birds will be slaughtered within a radius of 10 kilometres. Silva warned that the authorities would have to engage in a massive cull, involving the potential slaughter of up to five million birds. “For this reason it is absolutely vital to co-operate with all prevention measures in order to avoid this eventuality,” he said. Silva stressed there is no general prohibition on the sale of birds in Portugal, merely a ban on their sale in open-air markets. He said that this could be lifted if veterinary authorities considered that the dangers of a contagion were diminished.
Alarmism to be avoided
Silva warned against alarmism. “Public health is the fundamental preoccupation of this government. We have no intention whatsoever of hiding any information. All results of analyses will be conveyed immediately. Let nobody have any doubt that, in the event of an outbreak, we will isolate the area in question, proceed immediately to the sequestration and slaughter (of birds) and establish a sanitary cordon,” he added. “There is no risk whatever in the consumption of meat, particularly when it is cooked at a temperature above 70 degrees,” he added, concurring with the official view of scientists.