Getting to grips with . . .

The human implications of the UK’s ‘phenomenal level’ of avian flu

More than 40 poultry farms and bird sanctuaries have already reported cases this winter

Tens of thousands of captive birds at UK farms and sanctuaries have been culled as the “largest number of premises ever” report cases of aviation flu, the country’s chief veterinary officer has confirmed.

Dr Christine Middlemiss told the BBC that infection rates were already at a “phenomenal level” just weeks into winter. The Guardian reported that more than 500,000 farmed birds have been culled so far in a bid to slow the “unprecedented spread” of the disease.

Middlemiss told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that after two further outbreaks were confirmed overnight, “we now have a total of 40 infected premises” in the UK. “That’s a really high number for the time of year for anything we’ve experienced before,” she said. By comparison, there were just 26 outbreaks last winter. 

According to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the risk to human health is “very low”, although diseased birds should not be handled or touched. However, the outbreak “has huge human, animal, and trade implications”, Middlemiss warned. 

How is avian flu spread?

The illness is “largely spread by migratory wild birds which return to Britain and pass it on to other birds”, said the BBC, and has no links to the Covid-19 pandemic

Asked if the climate crisis might be to blame for the uptick in bird flu infections, Middlemiss said that “it’s certainly one of the thoughts that our experts are having”. She explained: “The birds migrate to the north of Russia over the summer and mix with other birds on other global flight pathways and exchange the viruses. So it’s quite plausible that with climate change and change in pathways that different mixing is going on.”

She said that “heightened biosecurity measures” would be needed until the end of the migratory season, which goes on until March.

An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared across the UK on 3 November and was extended on 29 November. Under the restrictions, all bird owners must keep the animals indoors and follow “strict biosecurity measures”, regardless of “whether they have pet birds, commercial flocks or just a few birds in a backyard flock”, according to Defra guidelines.

Will UK outbreak affect food supplies?

Middlemiss told the Today programme that food supplies should not be affected, because the tally of affected premises was “a relatively very small number in terms of egg supply, meat, chicken and so on”. 

She warned that every bird where an outbreak has been confirmed would be killed, however, adding that “for those keepers affected, it is really devastating”.

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