May 19. 2024. 1:35

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Ongoing bird flu not a risk for general public, say EU agencies


Avian influenza outbreaks will increase in the poultry sector along with occasional infections in mammals, but this poses minimal risk for humans, concludes a new report by scientific EU agencies.

The report, requested by the European Commission, assesses the evolution of avian influenza – a highly contagious viral disease that occurs primarily in poultry and wild water birds – from December 2022 to March 2023. It was authored by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and the EU reference laboratory (EURL).

This past year has seen Europe hit with the worst wave of avian flu on record, however, the study observed a decrease compared to the ‘high point’ in November 2022.

According to the report, avian influenza was reported in domestic and wild birds in over 24 countries in Europe, with an unexpected number of detections in sea birds – mainly gulls – in the past months.

The poultry sector might be at higher risk in the coming months due to gulls, especially black-headed gulls, moving inland during the breeding season.

The EFSA recommends prevention strategies in densely populated poultry areas.

“Implementing sustainable and effective biosecurity measures is fundamental, in combination with surveillance strategies to enable early detection of the virus in various poultry production systems,” said Francesca Baldinelli, scientific officer at EFSA’s Animal Health team.

“Additionally, raising awareness among farm owners and practitioners can help ensure that any changes in production cycles or increased mortality are promptly reported and acted upon,” she added.

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For mammals, the study links infections to feeding on infected wild birds, with cases reported in several species in Europe and the Americas.

To reduce the spread to wild and farmed mammals, EFSA and EURL recommend extending and enhancing surveillance in areas where the virus is present, particularly for American mink and pigs.

While the ECDC considers that the risk of human infection remains low in Europe, there is a higher risk for workers and people in contact with potentially infected animals.

“Human infections with avian influenza are overall rare events,” said Cornelia Adlhoch, ECDC principal expert on coronavirus and influenza.

However, avian influenza is considered “an ongoing threat to human health that warrants constant monitoring” due to a risk of reassortment with other animal and human seasonal influenza viruses, according to the expert.

The report concludes that direct contact with infected birds or a contaminated environment is the most likely source of infection.

Therefore, appropriate personal protective equipment when in contact with birds should be used, and people exposed to infected birds or mammals should be tested and followed up.

Bird-ccination

The European Commission announced in February new rules to harmonise the vaccination of animals against avian influenza to prevent or control the spread of the disease.

The new rules, which align with the international standards of the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, formerly OIE), entered into force on Sunday (12 March).

However, it is still unclear whether vaccination will hamper the rapid spread, as scientific evaluation is ongoing.

AVEC, the European representative of the poultry meat sector, warned that vaccines could be part of the strategy, but it is not the only solution.

Meanwhile, AnimalhealthEurope, representing manufacturers of animal health products in Europe, called for a multi-stakeholder evaluation of using vaccines during certain seasons to reduce the risk of outbreaks in poultry.

The European Commission has mandated EFSA to give an update on the available vaccines for poultry and to assess suitable vaccination strategies to be implemented by July.

In addition, it has also requested EFSA to assess by March 2024 the reinforced surveillance, restrictions and risk mitigation measures to be applied in vaccinated zones.

Commission harmonises rules on animal vaccination to tackle bird flu

The European Commission has announced new rules to harmonise the vaccination of animals against the most serious animal diseases as part of efforts to address the largest epidemic of avian flu observed in the EU so far.