A veterinary update on Avian Influenza (AI)

Posted on January 27, 2017 by John Fishwick

Updated on 6 February 2017

What is happening with Avian Influenza (AI) in the UK?

The strain of AI which currently threatens GB is the Highly Pathogenic H5N8. It is important to appreciate that, although this strain is unfortunately highly pathogenic to all species of birds, it has not been associated with any disease in humans. The virus is also killed during cooking so the risk to human health is very low indeed and properly cooked food presents no risk to human health.

This strain of AI is being carried by wild birds, particularly waterfowl, as they migrate across Europe. Towards the end of last year there were a significant number of AI outbreaks in Europe believed to be associated with migratory birds. In an attempt to reduce the risk from wild birds there are currently official Prevention Zones in place across the whole of the UK. These are currently due to remain in place until 28 February in England, Scotland and Wales and until 16 March in Northern Ireland. All the prevention zones could potentially be extended if deemed necessary. 

What does the Prevention Zone mean?

Chicken held by vet (main) The Prevention Zone now makes it a legal requirement that any type of kept bird, of any species, is housed to keep them away from wild birds and their droppings, or where housing is not possible or where this would compromise the welfare of the birds, then sensible precautions must be taken to keep kept birds away from wild birds. This applies equally to commercially farmed birds and to small holders and wildfowl collections.

It may seem totally impractical to keep wild birds away from kept birds, especially with a small collection of pet water fowl or chickens. However, there is a great deal that can be done quite simply. For example, making sure that feed and water is only available inside where wild birds cannot access it and using netting to keep wild birds away from kept birds.

Where birds are kept inside then welfare problems can be reduced by keeping different species of birds separately, for example keeping chickens or turkeys away from ducks and geese. Adding some environmental enrichment such as providing cabbages or adding grit to the litter can help. Using natural daylight patterns will also be beneficial.

As well as keeping birds separate from wild birds it is also vital to ensure good biosecurity. There is a very real danger that disease could be inadvertently spread by movement of birds or people or equipment, feed etc. from one site to another. Good biosecurity is essential. The virus could be unwittingly brought onto a holding of birds, for example, by visitors walking through contaminated droppings from wild birds and carrying it in on dirty footware. So keeping the area where birds are kept clean and tidy and avoiding visiting other flocks as well as avoiding visitors to your own flock can all help to reduce the risk during this period of high alert. There is also currently a legal ban on gatherings of birds. 

There is a simple Defra one-page leaflet summarising much of the advice – How to keep your birds safe from Avian Influenza (100 KB PDF) .

It may be helpful to print these out and have them available for your clients.

What are the signs of Avian Influenza?

These can be highly variable. Being a highly pathogenic strain often the first indication is deaths and birds being extremely unwell, with reduced water and feed intake and possibly swollen heads. Alternatively signs may be mild at first with reduced feed and water intakes and possibly signs of birds being a bit dull. If any suspicion of these signs are seen it is important that this is notified to APHA either by the client or the vet. APHA can then investigate and back up with laboratory testing as needed. Any suspicion should be reported to APHA on 03000 200 301. Avian Influenza is a Notifiable disease.

What has happened so far?

Avian Influenza has now been confirmed in Great Britain several times since the start of December. It has been found both on large commercial operations as well as in backyard poultry collections. All the birds in these units have been culled. AI has also been found in a number of wild waterfowl which have been found dead.

Avian Influenza is a very real risk at the moment and the situation continues to change regularly with reports of new cases. The key to control is to ensure wild birds are not allowed to have any contact with kept or farmed birds of any sort. This can be done by housing where appropriate or by taking sensible precautions such as netting. Good biosecurity to prevent spread between groups of birds is also absolutely essential.

The information in this post is correct up to and including 6 February 2017. The latest information on the winter 2016/2017 outbreak can be found in the Defra website news section.

Defra video: advice for keepers of backyard flocks

More on Avian Influenza

Related BVA policy

John Fishwick

Written by John Fishwick

BVA President from September 2017 to September 2018

John is senior lecturer in Dairy Herd Medicine and former head of the Department of Production and Population Health at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). He is a former President of the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA). Prior to this he worked in mixed practice and he was once head veterinarian to the world’s largest fully integrated dairy company, farming over 25,000 high producing dairy cows in Saudi Arabia.