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Expert warns avian flu to reach Sea of Galilee, posing danger to humans

But Health Ministry says tests have so far not found water to be polluted after flowing from Hula Lake Reserve, where 5,000 cranes have died

People visit a promenade in the city of Tiberias, next to the Sea of Galilee on January 30, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
People visit a promenade in the city of Tiberias, next to the Sea of Galilee on January 30, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

An expert warned Thursday that the avian flu outbreak that has killed vast numbers of domestic and wildfowl in recent weeks in northern Israel will spread to the Sea of Galilee.

Professor Moshe Gofen, former head of the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, said the flow of water from the Hula Lake Reserve — where some 5,000 cranes died of the disease — to the Sea of ​​Galilee poses a danger to humans, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Gofen claimed there was no way of stopping the lake’s waters from becoming polluted and called to warn the general public, as the Agriculture Ministry said it was concerned about the virus infecting humans.

But the Water Authority and the Health Ministry said that tests have so far not found the water in the Sea of ​​Galilee and the Jordan River to be contaminated with the virus.

“It is important to emphasize that infection of the bird flu can occur in close contact with infected birds and their secretions. However, the possibility of humans being infected is low,” the government agencies said in a joint statement.

It added that there has been no recorded case of a human being infected with the bird flu from water or food.

Gathering the carcasses of wild cranes killed by avian flu at the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in northern Israel, December 27. (Hadas Kahaner, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The H5N1 virus outbreak began in the Hula Valley and the community of Margaliot in the upper Galilee, next to the Lebanese border.

In Margaliot, more than half a million egg-laying chickens have died or been culled. All the poultry sheds are infected and have been sealed off by inspectors.

The public was advised to make sure to thoroughly cook eggs and other chicken products to kill any viruses or bacteria.

Agriculture Minister Oded Forer said he had allowed untaxed imports of eggs and that there would not be a shortage.

The Agriculture Ministry has not yet managed to pinpoint how the highly contagious viral disease H5N1 got into the Hula reserve, which attracts tens of thousands of cranes during the spring and summer migration seasons, particularly as food is distributed there to keep the birds away from commercial crop fields.

The danger of the bird flu outbreak jumping to humans is a serious source of concern, top epidemiologist Prof. Amnon Lahad told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

“The widespread nature of the avian flu is very concerning, especially given that it is infecting chickens and not just wild birds. It’s made the move from wildlife to stock animals, and I’m hoping it won’t make the next step to humans,” he said.

Most bird flu strains don’t infect humans. However, four strains have caused concern: H5N1 since 1997, H7N9 since 2013, H5N6 since 2014 and H5N8 since 2016.

The first outbreak this fall was at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, according to a notice sent out to poultry breeders on October 18 by the ministry’s veterinary service. Noting that avian flu was sometimes carried by wild birds — Israel sits on the annual migration route between Europe, Asia, and Africa — it called for the immediate transfer of all organic, free-range, and other outdoor chickens to closed facilities.

Filthy conditions at a northern Israeli egg farm, where chickens live in cages above piles of their own excrement. (Screenshot)

By November 3, the virus was also found at Kibbutz Maayan Zvi, near Zichron Yaakov, and as of November 21, it had spread to a duck farm in Kfar Baruch in the Jezreel Valley and a turkey farm in Ein Zurim, south of Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel.

Authorities have said the outbreak among chickens is partially due to farmers using primitive coops, unsanitary conditions and poor monitoring or reporting by farmers in Margaliot.

The farmers are up in arms over proposals to remove quotas for egg production and to open the industry up to local and international competition.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg called the outbreak “the worst blow to wildlife in the country’s history,” and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has discussed the outbreak with top security officials.

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