Avian Flu Discovered in Palestinian Village Near Jerusalem

Meanwhile, U.S. reveals effort to develop vaccine against bird flu, but isn't saying whether it might actually distribute it.

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It takes only five mutations for a deadly strain of bird flu to be transmitted among mammals via the air.
It takes only five mutations for a deadly strain of bird flu to be transmitted among mammals via the air.

Bird flu was discovered on Monday in the Palestinian Authority, among egg-laying hens in the village of Katana, the Israeli Agriculture Ministry said. Katana is near the kibbutz Maaleh Hahamisha, which is close to Jerusalem.

The ministry stated that its teams monitor poultry coops within Israeli territory, and are also inspecting facilities in a 10-km radius from the focus of the disease in the Palestinian Authority. The ministry also said that it is tightening supervision at crossing points between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and called on all people who keep chickens to close the birds in cages with roofs, in order to prevent their infection with bird flu by wild birds.

Bird flu, or avian flu, is actually a family of viruses that cause influenza of varying virulence in birds – but the disease has been known to cross over to other animals and people, and can be deadly.

Also on Monday, Reuters reported that the U.S. government is developing a vaccine to protect poultry from new avian flu strains that have recently killed birds from Arkansas to Washington state. The new strains, H5N8 and H5N2, have infected commercial poultry farms and backyard flocks in eight states since December, which led various countries to ban poultry imports from those areas. Moreover, the new strains have been found in wild birds that can carry the virus.

Even if the vaccine works fine, which previous versions have not - the government has no concrete plans to distribute it, officials said on Monday. The U.S. plans to continue to cull infected flocks to prevent transmission. The vaccine is being developed in case a countermeasure is needed to containment, explained T.J. Myers, associate deputy director of surveillance, preparedness, and response services for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Culling fowls at Moshav Sde Moshe during a bird flu outbreak in Israel in 2006.Credit: Dan Keinan

Meanwhile, this year in Israel, bird flu was identified at poultry farms in Moshav Aviel, by the town of Pardes Hana-Karkur, and some nearby spots in January and February, leading to a cull of birds in surrounding coops. In February the Philippines banned imports of Israeli chickens because of the outbreak, which was of the familiar H5N1 strain.

Bird-to-bird infection is trivial but the disease agent can also be transmitted by humans in contact with the birds, or by randomly passing animals, including rodents. Hence the importance of culls and isolation of infected spots.

Avian flu has been a recognized disease since the year 1878, when "fowl plague" – then vaguely thought to be a sort of chicken cholera - decimated bird farms in Italy. The actual viral agent was first isolated in 1901.

Of the many strains of bird flu, only four are known to have crossed species to humans: H5N1, the only one considered to be really dangerous, which is also the strain that had been identified in Israel; and also H7N3, H7N7, and H9N2, which result in milder versions of flu. Based on government sources, no cases are known of bird flu passing to humans in Israel.