The tale of the dead parrot

In an effort to get to the bottom of the tale of the dead parrot it appears the saga began at Heathrow airport as far back as September.

It seems that following a check by customs officials and border post inspectors on a consignment of 148 exotic birds from Surinam in South America, the crates containing the birds were sealed, but were not airtight so the birds could breathe fresh air freely during the three-hour journey to Essex.

There a private vet working for the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, checked the seals on the containers before the birds were recaged in the licensed quarantine facility of the private importer.

European regulations state that imported "captive" birds, which may in fact have been caught in the wild, have to be kept under lock and key for at least 30 days.

However a week later the importer again quite legally introduced a consignment of another 216 exotic from Taiwan, and both consignments shared the same "air space".

Now according to the "co-terminus" quarantine rule, which allows birds from different parts of the world to be quarantined together, that 30-day clock should have been reset to zero so that all birds spent a full month in quarantine.

It now appears that two birds died, one of them being the parrot that raised the initial alarm. The identity of the second bird and to which consignment it belonged is still being assessed.

Tissue material from both dead birds was pooled together and tested for the avian flu virus using a highly sensitive method, PCR, which is capable of detecting just one molecule of the virus.

The initial results, released on Friday was that one or both of the dead birds were infected with the H5 strain of avian flu.

Further tests by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, identified it as the deadly H5N1 strain, and even matched it to a recent outbreak in Chinese ducks.

This possibly suggests that the parrot from Surinam was free of the virus when it arrived at Heathrow and became infected while it was in quarantine with the birds from Taiwan, which has reported avian flu in domestic poultry.

Had none of the birds died, the vet would have tested "sentinel" birds, healthy chickens kept in the same facility, for avian flu virus before sanctioning their release to pet shops.

Apparently testing each bird for avian flu is expensive and not customary, except for high-value birds.

Now DEFRA officials are attempting to assess what symptoms if any were shown by the Taiwanese birds, as some died in quarantine, but as yet it is unclear what they died of.

Virologists at the Veterinary Laboratories are "pooling" tissues samples from batches of the culled birds to test for the presence of the virus.

It is their belief that the birds from Taiwan were infected with the lethal H5N1 strain.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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