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The county of Suffolk tucked away in the southern half of East Anglia must surely have offended the gods in the recent past. The multiple murders of Ipswich prostitutes in the last quarter of two thousand and six was horrific and exorcised the police in a manhunt for the culprit for the spotlight of the press, media and the world was upon them. Though the first of the murders occurred in late October the professional way in which the enquiry was conducted brought it to a conclusion just a week before Christmas and suspects were brought before the court to answer the charges. Ipswich and indeed Suffolk began to slip back into the anonymity of a rural county where nothing really happens but life goes on.

That is it did until Thursday 1st of February when two thousand unexplained deaths brought the attention of the veterinary services upon a turkey shed on a farm near Holton in Suffolk. Perhaps “Shed” gives a misleading impression because these sheds are huge, they hold more than one hundred and fifty thousand birds and could be said to be a “Turkey rearing factory”. On the farm at Holton there are twenty-three sheds and it has the appearance of an airfield that long ago might have been the operational base for a squadron of Spitfires or Lancaster bombers.

The concern that set in following the unexplained carcases of nearly two thousand birds was that whatever killed them was contagious and could spread to the remainder of the stock. By Friday morning it was feared that the cause could be “Avian influenza” and the stain of the disease suspected was H5-n1 the most virulent form currently stalking the wild bird population. By Saturday it was confirmed that the H5-n1 virus was present in the flock and in order to contain the outbreak it was decided to cull the flock. The slaughter began almost immediately and the method used was poisonous gas, which not only ensured the demise of the turkeys but also any other inhabitants of the sheds that were not supposed to be there. i.e. rats/mice/wild birds ect.
The deed done, disposal was of paramount importance, the method had to be safe and sure because the H5-n1 virus has been known to survive the death of its host and with this virus its RNA helix is compatible with other virus structures of the “Influenza” genus. The scenario to be avoided at all costs was that the H5-n1 virus was not allowed to combine with any other virus and create a “Mutant strain” that could not be controlled with the anti viral measures currently available. It was decided that the carcases would be “Rendered down” but the closest rendering facility was nearly two hundred miles away in Cheddleton, North Staffordshire and it was estimated that there would be nineteen truck loads to deal with. This same plant was used to dispose of the carcases from the BSE outbreak in cattle and later in the “Foot and mouth” epidemic, both of which devastated the farming community beyond recovery in many cases. With the farming industry still reeling from the ravages of the measures taken to control the previous pestilences it is now the poultry industry facing Armageddon.
The first white trucks containing the culled turkeys began to leave Holton on Saturday/Sunday and rendering began in Staffordshire with the plant working around the clock. Concern for the way in which the dead turkeys were transported however was expressed as the trucks sent to collect were “open top” trailers with nothing more than a sheet drawn across the top to prevent any discharge of debris, as it is known that even a feather can carry the virus. The residents of Cheddleton also expressed concern as the thick column of whitish grey smoke rose from the chimneystack of the rendering plant. The company maintained that it was merely steam, a bi-product of the process but residents claim that the discharge had been coming from the plant non-stop since the early hours of Sunday morning and they were not convinced that it was merely steam. The rendering down of the carcases produces fats/oils used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents and some lubricants so it may well come to pass that the bar of soap bought in a supermarket will contain oils or fats from the carcases of turkey’s that were once infected with the H5-n1 virus.

The trail of the virus’s entry into the turkey shed however is still a mystery and one that must be solved because apart from one lone swan that died in the harbour of a fishing village on the East Coast of Scotland in the latter half of 2006 there have been no other incidents involving this virus in the UK recently so the question arises “Is it possible that there was a connection between the “Swan incident” and this outbreak”?
If the swan had been destroyed locally in Scotland and the incident contained there it would be extremely unlikely that there was a connection but that was not the case. The infected bird was in fact taken by road to Surrey in England where it was examined and found to have succumbed to the virus H5-n1 which suggests that the virus did exist much closer to this outbreak than DEFRA have been disposed to admit up to now. It would be wrong to suggest a direct connection but the possibility did exist.

In the ensuing “Witch hunt” to identify a possible route for the virus entry to the shed it was first mooted that it was possible that it was brought into the sheds by migrant Portuguese workers employed there on their boots but given the hygiene factors associated with the way that these establishments are conducted that too would be a remote possibility. Jingoism is more often than not the first refuge of a media looking for a scapegoat but it should be borne in mind that this area of Suffolk has a high population of workers from Southern European origins many of which are from Spain, Portugal and Italy and most have been in this line of work for a long time and would be “Au fait” with the strictures of keeping poultry on this scale and whilst they may not have English as their first language they were subject to the direction of company rules and regulations which in this case was The Bernard Mathews poultry empire. It is therefore unlikely that the virus came to the sheds accidentally by a failing upon the part of an employee, is it not.
When it was made known that The Bernard Mathews company also had a farm in Hungary a further conclusion was drawn that it was possible that the virus was brought to Holton by transmission between two of the companies own premises in different countries by cross-contamination, possibly by a truck travelling between the two sites. If Defra's contention that the H-n1 virus is destroyed by cooking then how is it possible for either meat processed abroad to bring the virus here or for the turkey farm to have exported it since part of the process in both cases involved cooking the prepared end product.This too is very unlikely for a number of reasons the first of which was stated by the company, both sites are “Stand alone” concerns and although owned by the same company have no tangible contact however tenuous with each other. The second reason is one of physical practicality if the virus had become attached to a vehicle in Hungary the sheer aerodynamics that the vehicle would have passed though on its journey across the most densely populated continent on Earth would have destroyed it. The third and perhaps the most tenuous reason is that the virus in Hungary exists only in the furthest eastern province of the country whereas the Bernard Mathews holing is in the far west of Hungary hundreds of miles from the known outbreak of the virus. Again the Hungarian connection seems very remote.

One of the precautions that it is advised that people who keep poultry should take to prevent their flocks from contracting the virus is that the birds be kept under cover and thus kept separate from wild birds. In this case the turkey’s had never been outside and were kept in a controlled environment inside a shed, their food was palletised and the excess heat extracted by giant fans that drew hot air outward. The possibility that a wild bird got into the shed and contaminated everything is too far fetched to believe. Of all the birds kept for the supply of fresh meat these birds were more protected than most and with the profit motive as an incentive it would be reasonable to expect a level of competence from the owner that took every precaution against failure, but still it happened.

The pathological investigation of how the virus entered the shed is expected to take weeks rather than days but one possibility has so far been discounted. It is ”Has the virus already mutated and now become an airborne parthenogenesis”?

There is an exclusion zone around Holton a 3 Km radius where all movements are strictly controlled and everyone is advised to keep their poultry under cover yet just one mile from the outbreak there are still domestic birds scratching for worms in the dirt. An observation zone exists inside a radius of 10 Km from the outbreak yet here too there are still domestic birds outside. At present no one really knows how virulent this virus can be but it has the potential to decimate the poultry industry and worse can mutate at will with strains of influenza contracted by humans to form a totally new genus that could reduce the population of this country by 25%. Almost 100 years ago a similar virus took hold following World War 1, it killed more people than had died in the fighting on both sides.

On Tuesday 6th of February a vet working for the State Veterinary Service [a department of DEFRA] was admitted to hospital suffering from conjunctivitis, a respiratory problem and acute sensitivity of the nasal tracts, one of the tests being carried out on the man will determine if he has contracted the H5-n1 virus or any of its variants. Five days ago the vet attended the farm at Holton where the H5-n1 virus was confirmed and was involved in the mass cull of more than 150,000 turkeys. DEFRA [The Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs] still maintain that the outbreak holds little threat to humans or indeed the poultry industry as a whole.Why someone who already had such an infection was involved in the cull of birds carrying a virus that was known to have the ability to mutate with airborn spores emmited by sneezing is not forthcomming. The vet later tested negative for any sign of the H5-n1 virus.

In the area around Holton there are many concerns that rely upon poultry production, some large and some not so large. They all have one thing in common; they want to know exactly how this could happen their survival depends upon the truth of the matter. Not the conjecture of press or media looking for a headline but the truth, however good or bad it might be.


Posted: February 6, 2007 ,   Modified: February 12, 2007

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