Last year, we saw the worst outbreak of avian influenza (AI) on record. The outbreak wiped out millions of birds on premises across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, and also had a profound impact on wild birds across the affected regions.
In the UK alone, the outbreak of avian influenza H5N1 cost the poultry industry more than £100 million in losses, and now we have entered a new season, where predictions remain unsure. Coupled with an unpredictable pattern in migrating birds due to climate change, the outlook for the season appears uncertain.
What about a bird flu vaccine?
There are a few vaccines being trialled around the world, but to date, no universal vaccine has been found. The French government has decided on a preventative strategy and in September 2023 began rolling out a vaccination programme for 64 million domestic ducks over 12 months, as they were a major contributor to the spread of avian influenza there. However, the US government is not allowing those vaccinated birds into their country as they fear the vaccine could mask the virus.
Is DNA alteration the answer?
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and the Pirbright Institute published research in October 2023, which explored gene-editing techniques for breeding chickens. This work focused on parts of DNA that could be used to limit the spread of the virus.
In this research, gene-edited chickens were exposed to a normal dose of the H9N2-UDL avian influenza virus. From this, only 10% became infected and none exhibited the ability to transmit the virus to others.
However, when exposed to a higher dose, 50% of the birds became infected. There was no transmission to other gene-edited birds and there was just a 25% transmission to birds that weren’t gene-edited. Speaking of the research, Professor Mike McGrew said that: “Gene-editing offers a promising route towards permanent disease resistance, which could be passed down through generations, protecting poultry and reducing the risks to humans and wild birds. Our work shows that stopping the spread of avian influenza in chickens will need several simultaneous genetic changes.”
The gene-edited birds showed no signs that the DNA change impacted their health or wellbeing and more gene-edits are needed to produce a chicken population that will be immune to avian influenza infection.
Whilst research like this is revolutionary, there are a number of factors that bird keepers should be aware of. Research will need to constantly evolve to tackle additional strains of the disease, as research has previously shown that the virus has the ability to adapt and change. In addition, this research is focused on chickens, meaning those bird keepers who tend to other avian species may not see as many benefits.
Biosecurity complacency can kill
There are major steps being taken in the hunt for a cure for avian influenza and it may feel like one is just around the corner – but this can lead to a false sense of security – and could lead to huge implications.
There is no cure for avian influenza at the moment. Bird owners need to remember that there are also many other dangerous diseases out there, including Salmonella, E.coli, Marek’s disease and Newcastle disease to name a few.
An incursion can have a devastating impact on a flock and could lead to all of them having to be culled. This could lead to huge financial losses and a heavy emotional impact on everyone involved.
Maintaining biosecurity is imperative
The need to maintain robust biosecurity remains the same for the future security of poultry businesses. An incursion of avian influenza or any other disease could happen anytime.
Livetec are the industry leaders in biosecurity. We call on decades of on-farm experience to produce our innovative, award-winning products and services. They are developed and designed to improve animal welfare and the future of poultry owners from backyard keepers to commercial producers across the country. We know that maintaining the highest levels of biosecurity reduces the risk of a disease incursion. Livetec is well-prepared for any scenario. With our Biosecurity Advisory Service, your farm can be equally equipped.
During a comprehensive on-farm visit, a Livetec biosecurity expert will meticulously assess your everyday on-farm biosecurity protocols. Upon completion, they will guide you through a detailed report, highlighting essential protocols and practices to optimise your biosecurity and enhance the protection of your flock.
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