MOSCOW--In yet another alarming leap for the H5N1 avian influenza strain, Russian authorities have reported the first outbreak of the virus on their soil: Thousands of poultry have been killed around the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk. H5N1--whose presence was confirmed by the Russian Center for Animal Health Control in Vladimir--has already hit poultry farms in large swaths of Southeast Asia and China and has infected more than 100 people in these areas (ScienceNOW, 6 July, 2005), prompting experts to fear that it could spawn an influenza pandemic.
At a press conference today, Russia's chief sanitary physician Gennady Onishchenko said that the first reports of bird deaths came on 19 July from a village called Suzdalka, in the Zdvinsky Region of the Oblast (province) of Novosibirsk, where wild birds and poultry mingle at a lake. But the virus has since spread to the surrounding provinces of Omsk, Tomsk, Tyumen, and Altay. Poultry culling has begun in an effort to stop the spread, with some 65,000 birds scheduled to be destroyed in the next few days.
A spokesperson for the World Health Organization says that since this is the first outbreak in Russia, authorities should send samples to a foreign lab to confirm the presence of the viral strain. Poultry deaths have also been reported in neighboring Kazakhstan, and one man from the village of Golubovka was reported to have been hospitalized with what may be bird flu symptoms. But there is no official confirmation of the culprit.
With lots of backyard chickens, bird trading at markets, and a poor infrastructure, it's unlikely that Russia can halt the westward spread of the virus, which means it may reach Europe as well, says Ilaria Capua, an avian influenza researcher at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Venezie in Italy. "It looks bad ... It's going to be very, very, very hard to stop it."