Analysis: Avoiding the flu

By Michael Barker

UK poultry farmers have worked hard to keep the avian flu threat at bay, but with a recent outbreak in the Netherlands nobody is taking anything for granted.

The UK poultry industry knows better than to let any sliver of complacency set in. While there have as yet been no detections of the highly pathogenic H5N6 avian flu on commercial or non-commercial poultry farms this winter, the uncomfortable proximity to the Netherlands – where an outbreak has occurred – means nobody is counting their chickens just yet.

It had been looking like a straightforward season from an avian flu perspective until a series of findings in wild birds in January, which started with a group of swans in Dorset and was followed by further detections in Rugby, Hertford, Rutland, Wakefield and north-west London. As of early February, 11 sites were identified in England, with more expected. Notably, the findings were a new virus rather than the H5N8 seen last year.

Defra moved quickly in response, setting up Avian Influenza Prevention Zones in England and Wales and requiring poultry keepers to maintain enhanced biosecurity to prevent contact with wild birds. It is hoped that will be enough to stave off any spread to commercial farms, with well-oiled procedures in place as officials continue to learn from past experiences.

So how concerned should farmers be, and what can they do to ensure they are not the victims of a costly and damaging outbreak?

Firstly it’s important to note that even in the Netherlands, there was only one H5N6 outbreak, which took place at the end of 2017 on a commercial duck meat farm. Thought to have been introduced to the country by migratory birds, as all ducks in the Netherlands are kept indoors, the virus must have been introduced “from the outside by an unidentified mechanism causing failure of the biosafety implemented by the farmer,” according to a team of experts at the Wageningen Bioveterinary Research station.

The team, which comprises avian influenza project leader Nancy Beerens, epidemiologist Armin Elbers and Guus Koch, told Poultry Business that this winter H5N6 is visible in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and the UK, whereas in Italy and Bulgaria H5N8 is still being seen thanks to wild waterfowl carrying the virus and a subsequent secondary spread between farms.

Globally, experts are keeping a close eye on what can be a rapidly moving situation. The World Organisation for Animal Health’s latest report into the worldwide status of avian flu, which runs to 18 September 2017, noted a total of 23 countries affected by ongoing outbreaks – with eight each in Africa and Asia/Pacific and seven in Europe, though that figure has since swelled with the identifications in the UK. The report observes that authorities in Europe have responded well to previous outbreaks in poultry thanks to stamping-out measures, heightened surveillance and recommendations to keepers to increase biosecurity.

The message to farmers in the UK seems to be: there’s no need for undue concern, but make sure you are on the ball and up-to-date with the latest biosecurity advice. NFU chief poultry adviser Gary Ford says keepers of poultry should also remain vigilant and promptly report any concerns to their private vet or directly to the Animal and Plant Health Agency. “The health and welfare of their birds is a farmer’s top priority and practicing good biosecurity is the best way of guarding them from this disease,” he adds.

The situation is particularly challenging for keepers of free-range poultry, who are encouraged to take measures to keep water birds out by maintaining different types of vegetation and fencing around the free-range area, and even go as far as introducing trained dogs and laser equipment to monitor the free-range area. The birds can be brought inside in the event of an outbreak.

Certainly, outbreaks reaching commercial farms can be damaging, both financially and to a producer’s reputation. Bernard Matthews famously suffered an outbreak of H5N1 avian flu in 2007, a crisis which led to a large number of turkeys being culled and a disinfection programme on its Suffolk farm. The company also took a a hit at the tills, with supermarket sales of its branded turkeys nosediving as nervous consumers avoided the lines.

The Wageningen team underlines that avoiding an outbreak is paramount, from a business as much as an animal health point of view: “Every outbreak in a country has a high economic impact for the poultry sector if you are an exporting country, because export markets will close for several months, not only for table eggs but also for poultry meat products,” they explain. Affected farms will also suffer considerably as the flock will be culled to prevent infection, and although the farm will be compensated for the value of non-diseased, live birds at the time of culling, the farmer will also lose income due to the time and cost of cleaning and disinfecting the premises and the obligatory empty time before restarting production.

Hopefully it will not come to that. Vigilance is the watchword of the day, and with the current heightened state of alert the industry is well-armed to keep the threat at bay. Winter is always the danger time for avian flu, so the warmer temperatures of spring will be a welcome time for everyone concerned.

Preventative measures

Defra has introduced a prevention zone which requires all bird keeps in England and Wales to:

  • ensure the areas where birds are kept are unattractive to wild birds, for example by netting ponds and removing wild bird food sources
  • feed and water birds in enclosed areas to discourage wild birds
  • minimise movement in and out of bird enclosures
  • clean and disinfect footwear and keep areas where birds live clean and tidy
  • reduce any existing contamination by cleansing and disinfecting concrete areas, and fencing off wet or boggy areas

Keepers with more than 500 birds are required to take extra biosecurity measures including restricting access to non-essential people, changing clothing and footwear before entering bird enclosures and cleaning and disinfecting vehicles.

The UK’s departing chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens says: “Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, you are now legally required to meet enhanced biosecurity requirements and this is in your interests to do, to protect your birds from this highly infectious virus.”

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