A reduction in avian influenza cases doesn’t mean a reduction in risk.
Avian influenza continues to pose a threat to the nation’s poultry farmers and keepers despite the seeming drop in cases so far this season, when compared to last year. It’s crucially important for all keepers to be fully aware of the current virus landscape and, just as importantly, what the data and modelling suggests might happen in the future.
Current wild and seabird outbreaks: a case for optimism
The disease levels in wild birds and seabirds are being monitored constantly by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), with the published data showing that in the first few weeks of October 2023, 11 dead wild birds collected were found to have the virus. Compared to the same time period last year, where there were 84 confirmed cases of avian influenza in wild and seabirds, this is a significant decrease.
The reductions in the levels of confirmed avian influenza cases in wild birds are even more encouraging given that the threshold for reportable Gull group sizes was reduced in September from five to just one.
This picture is mirrored in Northern Europe – the areas from where much of the UK’s wildbird population typically originate. In this region, reported cases have been as low as five per week, with the bulk of the continent’s cases occurring in Central and Southern Europe.
Predicted outbreaks: learning from the data
Using this historical data, this year’s wild and seabird cases could find more similarities with the 2021 season. In the same weeks in 2021, there were no cases of avian influenza in the wild population and cases saw their peaks in weeks 44 onwards.
Given these insights, the data suggests that this season may lean more towards historical trends as opposed to 2022, suggesting that this season (2023-2024) may be similar to 2021, where there were 67 cases in November (23) and December (44).
Being aware of these data trends is critical for all bird keepers, as understanding this data can help predict the likely future virus pressure, allowing for additional biosecurity measures at times where the risk may be heightened.
Wild bird avian influenza immunity
Recently published research by FluMap, a consortium of Britain’s top scientific institutions and headed by APHA, has highlighted that some seabirds such as Northern Gannets and Shags appear to have developed immunity to the current H5N1 virus. Whilst encouraging, it is important to note the research covered a fairly small number of birds and it’s not yet known if the immunity can be passed onto offspring.
The positive view is that if wild birds continue to develop a resistance to avian influenza, it could lead to less virus being shed into the environment, lowering infection rates. Caution does need to be applied however during the winter months, as the virus has the ability to remain active in the environment for longer, potentially limiting any benefit gained elsewhere and, whilst there may be evidence of immunity in certain types of birds, this may not apply to all wild birds.
The changing pattern of avian influenza viruses also needs to be considered. The 2020/2021 avian influenza season centred around the H5N8 virus especially in commercial premises, with only a few cases of H5N1, predominantly found in small backyard flocks. However, the following 2021/22 season was centred around the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain. Scientists recognise that any immunity found in birds may only apply to that particular virus and leaves them vulnerable to new strains that emerge.
Bird flu split: commercial and backyard
This message of vigilance is not just for those farmers and keepers of large flocks. In 2021, the split in cases between commercial and backyard keepers was approximately 50/50. Last year, this changed to a 70/30 split as commercial properties found themselves gripped by the large number of wild bird infections in their regions. However, with biosecurity improvements across the commercial sector, this year might see the figures returning closer to a 50% split. Regardless of the size of your bird keeping operation, there is no room for complacency.
Preparing for bird flu
APHA’s Head of Virology, Prof Ian Brown, notes that: “We are in a very uncertain window at the moment, and we won’t be advocating any dropping of biosecurity standards. Far from it, because this is a very unpredictable virus and an unpredictable disease. But at the moment, they’re encouraging signs.”
Livetec are biosecurity leaders
As the industry leaders in biosecurity, Livetec are ready for whatever scenario. And with the help of our Biosecurity Advisory Service, now you and your farm can be too.
In a full day on-farm visit, a Livetec biosecurity expert will conduct an all-encompassing review of your day-to-day biosecurity measures. Once completed they will take you through their in-depth report, pointing out what protocols and practices you should undertake to optimise your biosecurity and maximise the protection of your flock.
Staying alert with the Livetec Systems App
Whether you are a poultry farmer or a backyard keeper, the Livetec Systems App is the perfect solution for staying ahead of disease outbreaks.
With the Livetec Systems App, you can explore a range of helpful features designed to help you be better informed, more prepared and stay ahead of the spread, including:
- Real-time disease outbreak notifications
- A wild bird avian influenza map
- The historical outbreak map
As winter begins to take hold, scientists will be watching the data carefully and, with the Livetec Systems App, you can too.