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Experts: Canadian bird flu virus likely a benign form
Toronto Globe and Mail


November 02, 2005

OTTAWA - An avian flu in the same family as the virus that has spawned fears of a pandemic has been detected in ducks in Quebec and Manitoba, but experts say it is likely a benign form of the disease that is commonly found in wild-bird populations.

Even so, there is some fear that the acknowledgment of the presence of an H5-type of influenza in Canadian birds could cause some countries to invoke trade restrictions.

"Some countries are very risk-adverse and will take advantage of the situation to sever ties in normal trading relationships with Canada - or any other country, for that matter - that would perform this kind of surveillance," Jim Clark, the director of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, told a hastily called news conference Monday.

That kind of protectionist measure could increase the likelihood of a pandemic because it could suppress reporting of outbreaks.

"As early as last week," said Clark, "the World Health Organization sent a strong message ... saying to take actions that would influence trade is sending a clear message to everyone that you shouldn't be looking for (the virus) very hard."

The H5N1 virus, which scientists say kills 100 percent of the birds it infects, has also caused the death of more than 60 people who have come in direct contact with affected poultry. There is a fear that the virus could mutate and become readily transmissible from human to human - something it cannot do at present. If that occurred, scientists fear it could set off a pandemic that could take millions of lives.

A wildlife-surveillance program that began in August tested 4,800 ducks in six migratory-bird flyways across Canada. Initial results have found an H5-type virus in 28 ducks in Quebec and another five in Manitoba, said Clark. Results from the other provinces have yet to come back, but they, too, are expected to show some H5 infection.

Some form of H5 virus is normally found in about 7.4 percent of all wild fowl, said Clark. But there are many types of H5, which may have been in circulation for thousands of years, and this strain does not seem to be dangerous.

The H5N1 "has killed a variety of birds, both domestic and wildlife, and infected humans," he said. "We have no evidence in the areas where these birds were sampled that there is any wild bird or domestic bird die-off or even illness associated with" the H5 virus found here.

If it is possible to pinpoint what type of H5 influenza has been detected in Canada, that determination should be announced within a week.

An avian influenza that forced the cull of millions of chickens in British Columbia last year was an H7 form of the disease. The samples collected will now be tested to determine if the ducks have been exposed to that kind of virus, said Clark.

Asked why federal authorities called what amounted to an emergency news conference to announce there was no real threat to either birds or humans, Clark said there is a desire to be open and transparent with the Canadian public.

Federal health minister Ujjal Dosanjh later agreed. "I don't believe that we should be hiding whatever we're doing," said Dosanjh. "We should share with the public at the earliest possible (time), that's one of our fundamental obligations as government. I was reassured to learn that H5N1 wasn't present and that they are actually doing further tests to determine what 'N' is present."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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