Bird flu: The UK prepares for the worst outbreak ever recorded this winter

UK bird flu infection rates are six weeks ahead of this time last year, prompting officials to step up biosecurity measures

Environment


October 18, 2022

Chicken farms in the UK have been asked to strengthen biosecurity measures

Mint Images / Getty Images

The UK is bracing for what is expected to be the worst avian flu outbreak in its history this winter, with officials warning of a rapid increase in infections over the past month.

The infections are six weeks ahead of where they were last year, according to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). There are currently 47 outbreaks across the UK, 30 of which have been confirmed since the beginning of October.

In an effort to contain the flu virus, which spreads through infected droppings, APHA this week imposed a “prevention zone” in England, Scotland and Wales. The Government of Northern Ireland has introduced the same policy.

This means that amateur bird breeders and owners across the UK will need to increase biosecurity measures, such as changing clothes and shoes before entering enclosures and disinfecting vehicles used on site.

But with high levels of infection among wild bird populations, there is growing concern that it may prove impossible to contain the outbreak.

UK Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss said the situation is unprecedented. “We have never had to do this before. We have never had this level of ongoing environmental infection before it posed such a risk, “she told the BBC.

Cases of bird flu have appeared periodically in the UK for decades, but in the past 12 months there have been a record number of outbreaks, caused by a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the virus.

Some 3.5 million captive birds have been culled since October 2021, while the virus has torn wild populations apart, hitting the UK’s globally recognized seabird colonies particularly hard.

Usually the summer months bring respite, but this year was different. New outbreaks were first recorded in June, July and August.

“There is a lot more virus out there than we have had in previous years,” Andy Paterson told APHA at a news conference. “We certainly haven’t had a break during the summer as we would normally expect.”

It means the UK is heading into winter and the next migration season with higher levels of the virus in circulation, officials warn. In the coming weeks, millions of ducks, swans, geese and other migratory birds will come to overwinter in the UK, amplifying the threat.

The H5N1 virus was first detected in Guangdong Province in southern China in 1996 and has since spread globally via infected wild birds. Scientists suspect that the current outbreak – which has also devastated continental Europe and the United States – could be due to a slight mutation in the virus which means it can survive for longer periods in the natural environment, allowing it to spread further between. wild bird populations indeed.

There is little that officials can do to control the spread of the virus among wild birds. Instead, containment efforts focus on keeping captive birds isolated from wild populations.

This is becoming more difficult in the face of climate change, with last winter’s storm damage and floods helping to spread infected droppings in captive flocks. As wilder weather systems draw closer once again, it’s more important than ever for farmers to close their hatches, officials say.

If biosecurity measures imposed this week fail to curb the number of new outbreaks, the next step will be a nationwide housing order, which would mean all captive birds must be kept indoors – away from wild populations. – until further notice.

Last year, between November and May, a real estate order was in place, forcing farmers to remove free range labels from eggs and meat.

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