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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tracking Down a Village's Birds

MTA veterinary worker in protective gear waving lists of addresses where she inoculated birds Monday in Povlovskoye.
POVLOVSKOYE, Moscow Region — Veterinary workers rushed from house to house in Povlovskoye on Monday, inoculating chickens, ducks, doves and even an ostrich.

"We've been divided up into several groups and sent around the village to vaccinate the birds," said one worker, who gave only her first name and patronymic, Tamara Ivanovna. She wore a white protective suit and a tight hood, and as she spoke she waved around sheets of paper with the handwritten lists of places she had inoculated birds.

Veterinary workers started a preventive inoculation campaign Monday in the village, 20 kilometers south of Moscow, and in four others in the Moscow region that are under quarantine amid an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu. Some villagers dismissed the fuss as "nonsense."

The country's chief epidemiologist, Gennady Onishchenko, said the outbreak posed no danger to the capital and the Moscow region, while poultry producers and sellers stressed that their birds could not possibly have come in contact with any infected birds.

Authorities said five cases of birds with the H5N1 strain had been confirmed and traced to Moscow's best-known pet market, Sadovod, just outside the city's southwestern limits. The market, also known as Bird Market, was closed over the weekend.

At least 150 domestic birds have died in the five villages where the deadly strain has been detected, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

The outbreak is the second in Russia this year and the closest yet to the capital. The virus killed birds in three villages in the Krasnodar region in January. No human cases of bird flu have been recorded in the country.

"It is difficult for humans to catch the virus. It only spreads from direct contact with an infected bird, not from person to person," said the Moscow region's chief epidemiologist, Olga Gavrilenko.

She said 1,200 people had been examined by doctors and 18 of them who had been in close contact with dead birds had been taken in for medical observation as a precaution.

The five villages under quarantine are Povlovskoye in the Domodedovo district; Shikhovo in the Zvenigorod district; Babenki in the Podolsk district; Maklakovo in the Taldomsk district; and Marushkino in the Narofominsk district. Vesti 24 television said all Moscow region poultry plants were also under quarantine.

Onishchenko said, however, that it was highly unlikely that the virus would spread from private farms into poultry production centers. "We will stop the further spread of the bird flu virus," he said on Vesti 24.

A senior veterinary official suggested that the virus was brought to the Moscow region by birds migrating from the south. "Preliminary data show the virus could have come from the region around Azerbaijan or Iran," said the official, Nikolai Vlasov.

Five deaths in Azerbaijan have been linked to the virus. Azerbaijan on Monday banned poultry from the Moscow region.

Mosselprom, the biggest poultry producer in the Moscow region, said all of its birds were raised indoors in quarantine-like conditions and could not have been infected.

"There is only one worker who has access to the birds, and this worker is always under special epidemiological control. He or she is prohibited from owning birds at home," Mosselprom spokeswoman Oksana Tarinina said.

No one was available at Rosinter Restaurants, which owns the Rostiks fast food chicken chain, to comment about the situation. A representative said officials were at a special meeting to discuss the outbreak and other issues. The company has said the virus poses no threat to customers due to the extremely high temperatures at which it cooks the meat.

The prosecutor's office in the Moscow region has opened an investigation into whether violations of veterinary regulations had led to the spread of an epidemic.

Moscow region Deputy Governor Alexei Panteleyev said 150 million doses of the vaccine had been prepared for a preventive inoculation campaign. "We usually do the vaccinations twice per year, in the spring and fall, but now we have decided to do an extra one," he said.

In Povlovskoye, two traffic police manned a temporary checkpoint, and workers from the local veterinary service wandered the streets in protective suits as they vaccinated domestic birds.

A sign reading "Quarantine" welcomed a steady stream of vehicles passing through the checkpoint. The vehicles slowed down to drive over disinfectant-soaked sawdust intended to clean their tires. The traffic policemen took turns standing out in the icy wind and stopping drivers, ordering some to open the trunks of their cars and show their documents in a temporary cabin nearby.

"We're only letting through people who are local residents or who work here," said one officer, explaining the need to check documents as he shooed away several waiting television crews with his baton.

The checks, however, seemed arbitrary. While most trucks were stopped, many cars passed by unhindered. A local bus half-full with passengers lumbered through unchecked.

"I'm just doing my job. They sent me here today, and I'll do my job. And, yes, they've said we'll be back here tomorrow," the other officer said.

Drivers lining up at the cabin to have their documents checked expressed understanding. "There were suspicions that there was this flu, but it seems that it is all being handled. No, I'm not worried," said Vladimir, a local truck driver, stamping his feet to get warm.

As they walked down a deserted village street, white protective suits over their normal clothes, plastic covers over their shoes and masks over their mouths and noses, a group of workers from the Domodedovo region veterinary services cut an unearthly figure.

"We've been vaccinating birds! Only domestic ones!" shouted out a veterinary worker as she climbed into a waiting Lada to warm up.

Tamara Ivanovna described how she used a needle to inject each bird with the vaccine. She was unable to give a figure for the total number of birds vaccinated in the village. "Not that many people keep chickens nowadays. Some keep doves and other decorative birds," she said.

Asked whether the measures were sufficient, she showed off the industrial disinfectant meant to clean the car tires, as a stray black Labrador puppy lolled in the disinfected sawdust. "These are standard preventative measures," she said.

Another veterinary worker, who refused to give his name, said even an ostrich had been inoculated Monday. He could not give directions to the ostrich.

Many villagers scoffed at the quarantine. "What's there to be afraid of? It's all nonsense, there's no flu here," said an elderly man, Alexander.

But Alla, 40, who lives in a neighboring village, called the situation frightening. "The controls aren't very effective at all. People can drive around them easily on the other side of the village," she said.

Asked whether the job was dangerous, one veterinary worker shrugged and shook his head dismissively. "Two chickens die and all this blows up. It's ridiculous," he said.