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Liver disease threatens Christmas turkeys

by 5m Editor
28 October 2003, at 12:00am

UK - Turkey farmers are barricading their premises to prevent the spread of a savage disease after Brussels banned the only drug that can eradicate it. Ten million turkeys being reared for the £100 million Christmas trade are at risk from blackhead (Histomanos meleagridis), which can destroy entire flocks.

Liver disease threatens Christmas turkeys - UK - Turkey farmers are barricading their premises to prevent the spread of a savage disease after Brussels banned the only drug that can eradicate it. Ten million turkeys being reared for the £100 million Christmas trade are at risk from blackhead (Histomanos meleagridis), which can destroy entire flocks.

The disease, which enters the gut of birds and attacks their liver, has broken out in France, Germany and the Netherlands and farmers fear that it will be carried into Britain by migrating birds. East Anglia and Kent are particularly vulnerable.
The disease can also be transmitted by earthworms and the biggest threat is to topof-the-range turkeys which are reared outdoors.

Some affected farms in continental Europe have lost at least half their birds, even if they followed the highest health and hygiene standards.

If the disease infects young poults, 90 per cent of a flock can waste away and die.

The UK’s 1,000 turkey farmers have instituted emergency measures. In scenes reminiscent of the foot-and-mouth outbreak three years ago many farms are out of bounds for visitors and foot baths are appearing outside premises. The disease can be carried on mud or faeces on shoes and boots. Turkey feed is being stored securely to prevent scavenging by birds and spillages are cleaned up immediately.

Some farmers are so scared that they allow only themselves to come into contact with the birds.

The panic has been made worse because farmers and vets no longer have any drugs available to treat the disease. For decades a drug called Emtryl has been added to poultry feed to prevent blackhead but in May this year, the European Commission banned it because of a potential link to cancer in human beings.

Scientists could not agree a safe maximum limit for residues of the drug in birds destined for eating.

Pleas by the National Farmers’ Union for vets to prescribe the drug in disease outbreaks have been rejected by the European Commission. Senior vets from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are now trying to persuade the EC to allow vets to use the drug on welfare grounds, at least until a replacement is available.

There is no cure, no preventive treatment, no insurance cover and no compensation because blackhead is not a notifiable disease.

There are no risks to human beings. Once infected a turkey will die within four or five days. Tell-tale signs are refusal to eat or drink, loss of weight, listlessness and lying down.

Blood turns blue and the head of the bird looks darker, hence the name, blackhead.

Derek Kelly, who runs Kelly Turkey farms, of Danbury, Essex, has stepped up protection for his 100,000 free-range bronze turkeys. He is worried that his birds will catch the disease from earthworms and has introduced routine worming.

He said: “We understand the risk goes down when the bird get older. We slaughter birds at about 20 weeks so we have another eight weeks of waiting and we are just holding our breath.”

Source: Valerie Elliott, Countryside Editor for The Times - 28th October 2003

5m Editor