As of October 2021, 15 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America have reported outbreaks of highly pathogenic bird flu in poultry. The risk to humans is increasing, warns the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). “This time the situation is more difficult and riskier because we see more variants popping up, making them harder to track,” said OIE Director General Monique Eloit last week. “Ultimately, the risk of it mutating or mixing with a human flu virus that can be transmitted between humans is suddenly a new dimension.”
First human infected
The first human infection with bird flu came to light in England this week. And although there are special circumstances in this case – the man in question let about 20
ducks in his house – the H5N1 bird flu virus has spread more frequently to humans in recent years. This was fatal in about half of the cases. “If one, two or three people get infected, that’s worrying,” Eloit underlined. However, she believes that her colleagues should not be too quick to sound the alarm about the risks of expansion. Close contact is necessary for bird flu transmission.
The virologist Marion Koopmans and her department at Erasmus University, now famous due to Covid-19 (SARS CoV-2), have been working on viruses that jump from animals to humans for years and have built up a reputation for bird flu viruses. Koopmans believes that the bird flu virus should be closely monitored because of the risks to public health. Because society has now experienced how disruptive an infectious disease can be, expressing the risk has a different weight than pre-Covid.
Preparedness continues. The advance of bird flu of the potentially zoonotic type that we have seen in recent years is a serious shift in epidemiology. Now mainly an animal disease, but keep an eye on it. https://t.co/UEAm0AsNfu
— Marion Koopmans (@MarionKoopmans) December 24, 2021
If the bird flu season gets longer and the disease becomes more common, this could have serious economic consequences. Already, the months-long obligation to keep laying hens means that laying hen farmers have to ‘devalue’ their eggs from free range to cheaper free-range eggs. Organic eggs disappear from the shelves because they no longer meet the requirements of the organic label; after all, organic laying hens are no longer allowed to run outside. Governments can also decide to implement trade restrictions in the event of an outbreak.
Reason for the Dutch poultry industry to argue for solutions other than culling and penning: a vaccine, for example. At the moment a experiment with a vaccine against highly pathogenic bird flu in preparation. That could offer some relief, albeit that trade consequences must also be taken into account. Several countries exclude the import of meat and eggs from vaccinated animals.
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Nearly a million culled barn birds in the Netherlands – Foodlog