The UK currently has multiple confirmed cases of Avian flu
Currently, the UK has multiple confirmed cases of avian flu also known as bird flu and avian influenza H5N1. Avian flu cases have been found in captive birds, wild birds and poultry across England, Wales and Scotland.
England is currently at very high risk of incursion of highly pathogenic avian flu in wild birds. In Scotland and Wales, HPAI is classified as high.
If biosecurity is good the risk level in poultry is classified as medium. Whereas, if poultry farms have inadequate biosecurity measures or substantial breaches in their biosecurity, then the risk increases to high.
The government guidance encourages bird keepers to maintain high standards of biosecurity for their bird’s health and as an essential defence against avian flu or bird flu, high standards of biosecurity is crucial to limit the spread of avian influenza.
What is Avian Flu?
Avian flu or avian influenza (AI) is a highly contagious viral disease that affects birds that are used in food production, such as chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, quails, etc and also pet birds and wild birds. Avian flu can also be contracted by mammals including humans on occasion.
There are lots of strains of avian flu but they tend to be classified into two categories, low pathogenic avian flu (LPAI) which has few or no clinical symptoms and highly pathogenic avian flu, which causes severe clinical symptoms and a high mortality rate in poultry.
Avian Flu Transmission and spread
Birds spread Avian influenza through their faeces and respiratory secretions, direct contact with bodily secretions from infected birds, particularly through contact with faeces, contaminated feed or water and also by dirty vehicles, footwear or clothing.
The avian influenza virus frequently mutates into new strains, with a constant concern that a new strain could be zoonotic and be spread in people.
Avian influenza is not an airborne virus.
Avian flu is a very resistant virus that can survive for long periods even in cold temperatures and can be spread between farms on farm equipment.
Wild birds carry avian flu in their intestinal or respiratory tracts but as wild birds often don’t demonstrate clinical symptoms they can spread the avian flu virus for vast distances along their migration routes.
Factors that contribute to the spread of avian flu, include:
- contaminated farm equipment moved between farms
- live bird markets
- international trading
- infected wild birds migrating
Poultry farmers should practice enhanced biosecurity
Poultry farmers should practice enhanced biosecurity to prevent the spread of avian flu and to monitor their flock for any clinical symptoms.
This is also crucial for anyone that keeps birds such as ducks, chickens or geese to follow Defra’s biosecurity guidance. It is vital that all bird keepers both domestic and commercial work together by complying with the stipulations to reduce the risk and spread of avian influenza also known as bird flu.
Guidance from the UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss stated:
Bird keepers need to be extra vigilant in monitoring their bird’s health, especially in the higher risk winter period.
The best course of action to protect your poultry from avian flu is to ensure enhanced biosecurity measures are in place. If you suspect an outbreak of bird flu you should report it to your vet or the APHA immediately.
Enhanced biosecurity measures to prevent avian flu
Poultry keepers need to be diligent during avian flu outbreaks to protect their birds and their livelihood. Enhanced biosecurity measures are necessary to prevent the threat of bird flu. They apply to commercial farms as well as backyard flocks and game bird rearing.
It is a legal requirement to adhere to these measures across the UK for all bird keepers, including pet birds, backyard flocks and commercial flocks.
Birds need to be housed indoors and biosecurity measures need to be strictly followed in order to limit the spread and eradicate the disease.
Biosecurity measures include:
- Pest control
- House all poultry and captive birds indoors or net to separate from wild birds
- Cleansed and disinfect all clothing, footwear, vehicles and equipment before and after contact with poultry or captive birds. If possible best practice is to use disposable protective clothing.
- Only permit essential access to reduce people, equipment and vehicles to and from poultry or birds housing. This is crucial to minimise contamination from slurry, manure and other products
- All entrance and exit points of the farm and poultry housing must have ready mixed disinfectant to the correct concentration
- Ensure wild birds can’t access water or feed
- Continuously clean and disinfect bird and poultry housing
- Prevent direct and indirect (such as water or food access) contact between captive birds, poultry and wild birds.
- Keep chickens and turkeys completely separate from ducks and geese
- Maintain poultry sheds or housing. Ensure wild birds don’t roost in the sheds. Prevent access to the inside of the buildings. Fix any defects or access points and cover any openings with suitable netting or mesh.
- Keep bird housing clean, clear moss of the roofs, empty gutters and remove vegetation between sheds
- Place fencing around birds outdoor areas. Prevent access to ponds or areas visited by wild waterfowl
- Ensure all areas where birds live are clean and tidy
- Have a contingency plan for bedding storage and vermin control
- Keep wild birds, dogs, cats, rodents and other livestock out of poultry buildings and feed stores. They can spread infection or infective material onto your farm and spread disease to your flock.
Symptoms of Avian Flu
It is crucial to be vigilant against avian influenza and check your flock. Below is guidance on symptoms to watch out for.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is the more serious of the two types of bird flu and if contracted is often fatal to birds. Watch out for any of the clinical symptoms of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) including:
- A sudden increase in flock mortality rate
- Several incidences of ill birds sharing the same housing
- Depression and lethargy
- Swelling of the head
- Birds demonstrating a lack of balance or coordination
- Twisted head and neck
- Wings drooping and/or leg dragging
- Excessive eye watering or closed eyes
- Birds shaking/tremoring/convulsing
- Lack of body control (recumbency) and unresponsive
- Waffles and combs blue and swollen
- Loss of appetite
- Change in consumption of water whether increased or decreased
- Shanks of the legs and the skin under the neck haemorrhaging
- Fever or noticeable increase in temperature
- Signs of respiratory distress such as a gaping mouth (mouth breathing) or nasal snicking (coughing sound)
- Sneezing, rattling or gurgling
- Loose watery or discoloured excrement
- Reduction or cessation of egg-laying
Clinical symptoms of avian flu differ between bird species. Some species of bird, such as ducks and geese demonstrate minimal HPAI clinical signs.
All poultry owners whether commercial or domestic must closely monitor for any bird flu symptoms. Seek immediate veterinary advice if in any doubt.
What to do if you suspect an outbreak of avian flu?
Avian flu causes huge distress to poultry farmers as infection usually causes high morbidity rates in a flock and also a high financial loss to commercial farmers.
If you suspect an avian flu outbreak you must consult a vet immediately for confirmation, if you are in the unfortunate position to have your flock infected with avian influenza / avian flu you must inform Defra immediately.
- England – call Defra on 03000 200 301
- Wales – call 0300 303 8268
- Scotland – call the local Field Services Office.
It is an offence to not report to the relevant authority. It is also crucial to report dead wild birds and waterfowl.
AI (avian influenza confirmation will normally require a cull of the flock and an extreme cleaning and disinfecting regime to meet the government standards outlined.
Restocking is not permitted for at least 21 days post approved clean down, and there will be movement restrictions to adhere to.
Birds that have died naturally from avian flu will not be compensated, however, there is compensation available for birds that have had to be slaughtered.
The government authority will assess with a vet whether there is a confirmed outbreak of HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) and whether it has spread.
If there is confirmation of disease normally it will be necessary to cull the whole flock and dispose of the carcasses according to guidelines.
Then an intensive clean and disinfection of poultry sheds and housing need to be signed off by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to ensure it meets regulations. Movement restrictions will be put in place for the infected farm and other farms in the local area.