Bird flu: be prepared!
Nigel Gibbens, the Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer, issues an appeal to poultry keepers and suggests some practical steps we can all take
A special report from the UK’s Chief Vet, Professor Nigel Gibbens, on the threat of bird flu this winter
Last winter, the outbreak of a severe strain of bird flu in the UK posed a great challenge to everyone who keeps birds. We saw how devastating the disease can be once it makes its way into a flock, as millions of birds had to be culled across Europe. Cases are still being confirmed on the Continent, with Italy the latest country to experience significant outbreaks.
At the time of writing, I’m pleased to be able to say we haven’t had a confirmed case in kept birds in the UK for two months. But a wild swan with the disease was found recently in Norfolk, so we know it undoubtedly remains a threat and one likely to increase as we move again towards the colder months and migratory birds begin to arrive. That’s why it is crucial that keepers of flocks large and small do everything they can now to reduce the risk to their birds.
What’s the risk from bird flu?
The H5N8 strain of Avian Influenza, commonly known as bird flu, affects all types of poultry, including chickens, ducks and geese, and between December and June the UK experienced a number of cases. It
can be spread by direct contact between birds and by anything that brings live bird flu virus from infected birds into contact with other birds. That includes droppings in the environment, of course, but also contaminated equipment, feed, clothing and footwear, and uncooked poultry meat or eggs. It is not just about wild birds, but they were a key risk last year and will be in the future.
Readers have been on the front line in reducing the spread of this disease, and may well need to be again in the coming months. The risk of disease is lower because wild birds are not migrating to the UK and the warmer and drier (for some!) weather kills the virus in the environment more quickly. Now is a good time to take stock and make sure your birds are as well protected as possible going into the winter.
H5N8 Avian Flu is a highly infectious disease and can affect your flock whatever its size – from vast commercial operations to pet chickens in your back gardens. Last winter, we saw cases in small backyard flocks, as well as on farms.
Disease outbreaks cause birds to suffer, damage businesses and cost the UK taxpayer millions, so it is in the interests of all keepers to take proactive preventative action against bird flu. On a UK-wide scale, protecting the national flock and rapidly eliminating infection whenever this disease affects kept birds is a priority. On an individual level, as poultry keepers you are primarily concerned about your birds’ welfare, which includes protecting them from disease. However, bird flu in a backyard flock leads to the same restrictions on trade in poultry from an area as an outbreak on a commercial farm – so bird flu in a small back garden flock can have serious consequences for local farmers. This highlights your wider duty to do everything that you can to prevent bird flu from getting into your flock.
Why we need to take action now
We cannot rest on our laurels and congratulate ourselves on keeping disease spread to a minimum, compared to other parts of Europe. We cannot say how likely the disease is to return this winter, but we have to be prepared for the possibility – particularly as we know that it is transmitted via migratory wild birds, which will return later this year.
I understand some of the measures we had to put in place last winter were a challenge for people with a few pet chickens in their garden – particularly the requirement to keep birds under cover. Your cooperation was a crucial part of our efforts to control disease. I was impressed with the ingenuity of many people’s approaches to the housing requirement, including one keeper who had adapted their trampoline to create a temporary
henhouse! But it is important to remember that maintaining good biosecurity is not just a requirement during a major disease outbreak – it’s something keepers should be doing all year round.
There are a number of actions you can take now to protect your birds as best as possible for the coming winter. Above all, it is important to try to avoid contact between poultry and wild birds – either direct bird-to-bird contact, or indirect contact via the environment, where disease can be spread through things like contaminated bird droppings.
What is ‘good biosecurity’?
You might have heard advice to practice ‘good biosecurity’ during the winter’s bird flu outbreak. Biosecurity means taking steps to minimise the risk of a disease entering or spreading from your premises. All poultry keepers should practice good biosecurity every day. It helps keep poultry healthy and productive, limits the risk of disease and cuts the costs of treatment. During an outbreak, strict biosecurity is essential. But if you can get into the habit of taking practical steps on biosecurity now, you will be far better prepared to deal with any future outbreak.
Top tips to follow:
Clean footwear before and after visiting where your birds live. Keep areas clean and tidy, control vermin and regularly disinfect any hard surfaces. Place your birds’ food and water in fully enclosed areas that are protected from wild birds, and remove any spilled feed regularly. Keep your birds separate from wildlife and wild waterfowl by putting suitable fencing around the outdoor areas they access.
Good biosecurity is essential all year round
Bird flu can be passed from wild birds to poultry directly from bird to bird or indirectly via the environment. The H5N8 virus can survive in the environment in moist poultry droppings or water for up to 55 days if conditions are right, so it really is vital to keep cleaning and disinfecting. Disease can be spread by people, poultry, vehicles and equipment moving between and within places where birds are kept; by using shared equipment which has not been effectively cleansed and disinfected; by contact with other infected flocks or by poultry of poor or unknown health status being introduced to your flock; by contact with vermin or wild birds; and by poultry drinking from contaminated water sources or eating contaminated feed. The greatest direct risk appears to be contact with wild waterfowl or gulls, and keepers should do everything they can to prevent this risk by reducing any contact with these birds.
Preparing for the winter
We don’t know whether we will experience an outbreak, or whether it will be on the scale of last year’s again this winter. It’s important to note that Public Health England advises the risk to human health from the H5N8 strain is very low and the Food Standards Agency has said there is no food safety risk for UK consumers. There have never been any recorded cases in humans in any of the countries where H5N8 has been reported, from Asia, to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. However, this isn’t the case with all strains of bird flu. Some are able to infect and cause disease in people in close contact with birds, and disease can be severe or even fatal in some cases. Whilst this is not currently a problem, we cannot rule out the possibility that one of these strains may affect the UK in future. So it is vital to do everything we can to minimise the risk of disease in all kept birds. Talk to your friends and neighbours, remind them of the ongoing threat and please encourage them to take action. Effective disease control will always be the Government’s priority. The latest evidence suggests H5N8 continues to circulate in wild birds, and we must all remain vigilant. To tackle this disease, we need everyone who keeps poultry to do all they can to protect poultry from infection and keep the country free from disease in kept birds, even though we are challenged by infection in the wild bird population.
MORE: One of the best ways to stay up to date with the latest situation is to sign up for the Animal and Plant Health Agency alerts service. Signing up is quick and free - visit http://animalhealth.system-message.co.uk/ AH_ subscribe_index.php * Nigel Gibbens has been the UK Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer since 2008, and leads the Government response to animal disease outbreaks. * Further details on the current bird flu outbreak, including all the latest advice and guidance, can be found at www.gov.uk/ guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu and if you have concerns about bird flu in your call the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77.
Geese are at risk, along with other domestic poultry
Disease can be carried by vehicles as well as poultry directly from bird to bird or indirectly via the environment
Your hens could be at risk
Migrating wild birds spread bird flu