The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today warned that a new bird flu strain detected in Europe poses a significant threat to the poultry sector, especially in low-resourced countries situated along the Black Sea and East Atlantic migratory routes of wild birds.
In a press release issued today, the FAO said that Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have confirmed the new avian influenza virus strain H5N8 in poultry farms, and German authorities have also found the virus in a wild bird.
Earlier this year, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea reported outbreaks of H5N8 in poultry, as well as findings in migratory birds and waterfowl.
The fact that the virus has now been found within a very short time interval in three European countries, both in a wild bird and in three very different poultry production systems, suggests that wild birds may have played a role in spreading the virus, according to experts from the FAO and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
H5N8 has thus far not been confirmed to infect people, FAO said. However, it is highly pathogenic for domestic poultry, causing significant mortality in chickens and turkeys.
The virus can also infect wild birds, which show little signs of illness. It is known from other influenza viruses that wild birds are able to carry the virus long distances, the agency explained.
If poultry systems with low-biosecurity conditions become infected in countries with limited veterinary preparedness, the virus could spread through farms with devastating effects, both on vulnerable livelihoods as well as on country economies and trade, FAO emphasized.
The best way for countries to safeguard against these impacts is to encourage better biosecurity and to maintain surveillance systems that detect outbreaks early and enable veterinary services to respond rapidly, FAO said.
Specifically, FAO and OIE are recommending at-risk countries to increase surveillance efforts for the early detection of H5N8 and other influenza viruses; maintain and further strengthen the rapid-response capacities of veterinary services; reinforce biosecurity measures, with particular emphasis on minimizing contact between domestic poultry and wild birds; and raise the awareness of hunters and other individuals who may come into contact with wildlife in order to provide early information on sick or dead wild birds.
The new strain of avian influenza has not resulted in human cases, FAO noted. It is nevertheless related to the H5N1 virus, which is known to have spread from Asia into Europe and Africa in 2005 and 2006, and has caused the deaths of nearly 400 people and hundreds of millions of poultry to date.