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Poultry growers, concerned about the worldwide "hype" over avian flu, recommend that the public take a deep breath, relax and sit down to a good chicken dinner.
"We're not doing anything special, and the Health Ministry has not given us any new instructions," said Gideon Mager, deputy director of the poultry farm at Kibbutz Yiftah in the North, who has been in the business for 45 years.
"I got my regular flu injection as usual, but that's all. Our poultry runs are closed completely from the outside world and are not in danger of being invaded by migrating birds who might be carrying avian flu," said Mager, who runs the 80,000-chicken farm with only one other person. "Everything is automated, and we are on the hills, where migrating birds do not flock. We are not concerned."
Itzik Zamir, a veteran poultry farmer at Kibbutz Malkiya, said he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. "There was avian flu a year ago and two years ago in Israel, and some birds died from it. The virus didn't pass to humans. It's true that there could be a problem if the virus strain changes and it affects people, but we have not been asked by the authorities to implement any additional measures. We routinely observe strict biosecurity because of all kinds of other poultry diseases that threaten chickens, including Newcastle disease and kidney flu. There are drugs and vaccines, and we have ongoing supervision by veterinarians, who conduct lab tests and examine the fowls."
Zamir accused the Health Ministry of exaggerating and causing panic. "The health minister wants to appear on TV and be interviewed, and the ministry wants more money for drugs. It's all politics. There are all kinds of other interests that I don't understand. When cows get infected with hoof and mouth disease, which happens, do people stop eating beef? There is no danger from eating poultry, which is a basic and inexpensive food."
He added that chickens are naturally exposed to infections, not because of crowding and industrial raising, but because they are generally susceptible to pathogens.
"People don't understand avian flu," he said. "If they hear of sick birds every day, maybe they won't eat chicken, even though the ministry and all the experts say it is safe. Maybe they think the government is lying to them. If there are cases of avian flu in Israel again, I have no doubt that the news will hurt sales, even though there is absolutely no risk from eating poultry."
Malkiya financial manager Shimon Zayit suggested that the media were putting avian flu on their front pages and as the first items on their TV and radio broadcasts "because it's a holiday, and there's no other big news. We raise 100,000 chicks every two months. Migrating birds can't get in, and we're busy all the time cleaning. We pay great attention to our chickens' health all the time."
An official at the Ramot Hashavim poultry farm in the Sharon said its veterinarians wanted more information from the Agriculture Ministry, "but they didn't even answer their phones because it's the intermediate days of Succot."
Prof. Bracha Rager, a leading expert in microbiology and immunology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, who has done much research on viruses, stressed that avian flu virus is transmitted from bird to bird and sometimes by bird to human via the nose.
"Respiration of the virus via feathers and droppings is the only means of transmission," she said. "It cannot pass through the digestive system, as it is killed by gastric juices as well as being killed by the heat of cooking."
She stressed that claims that birds in Asia died from the potential dangerous H5N1 strain of avian flu have not been proven.
"You can find these strains only by examining the respiratory organs of the birds, and this is very hard lab work. I doubt they have these capabilities in Asia. Checking the blood can show only the presence of antibodies to the virus, but that is not the same as being sick," Rager said. "It's possible that migrating birds died of exhaustion due to their flying over long distances, and not from the virus."
Regarding claims by Hungarian scientists that they have developed an effective avian flu vaccine, Rager was skeptical, noting that "they found antibodies to the virus, but that doesn't mean anything yet. You can't develop a vaccine from one day to the next. It has to be checked and proven safe and effective."
While health authorities must be on the alert to find out whether any avian flu virus has mutated to a human strain, she believes that officials at the World Health Organization have "exaggerated their response because they are nervous about a new phenomenon after West Nile virus, mad cow disease and SARS. There is globalization, and they are nervous."
Rager said she felt more concern at present about potential disease that may be developing in the southern US as a result of standing water from Hurricane Katrina.
The BGU researcher, who intends to organize a symposium on avian flu at the university, said the exaggeration over avian flu is "grotesque and brutal. There clearly are economic interests involved. I advise the Israeli public to take it easy, wait and not to be hysterical. If, God forbid, the infection reaches humans, health authorities will deal with it. In the meantime, poultry workers should wear masks, and I'm sure many do. I don't see Israelis wearing masks to prevent viral transmission via the air, and there is no need for it now."
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that Roche Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures Tamiflu, the only drug shown to treat avian flu in humans at an early stage, says it is willing to discuss sub-licensing arrangements with other companies to produce it despite having an exclusive patent.
There is a shortage of Tamiflu around the world and, so far, the Health Ministry has coverage for only 9 percent of the population. While the ministry aims to have enough of the drug for a quarter of Israelis, health experts advised Israelis not to gobble up Tamiflu if they somehow got their hands on it. It was unnecessary, they insisted, and could cause pathogens to develop resistance to the drug.