There are many different strains of Avian Influenza (or Bird Flu) that spread amongst our wild bird population. The first real mass media coverage of Bird Flu came with the outbreak of H5N1 in 1997. The spread of this particular strain reached unprecedented levels and caused a global pandemic. Since then, there have been several other strains of Bird Flu that have raised cause for concern, with the Government’s Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) keeping a watchful eye on their development.
The strain causing most concern to APHA at present is H5N8 which is being transmitted in waterfowl particularly, as they migrate throughout Europe. During 2016/17 there were a number of outbreaks of H5N8 in poultry flocks and wild birds in the UK and across Europe. As well as commercial flocks and wild birds, it can also affect and pet birds so it is extremely important that, if you keep birds, you are aware of the symptoms of Avian Influenza and that you report any suspected cases without delay.
What do you need to look out for?
Symptoms can vary widely and sadly often the first indication is death. Be particularly aware of any birds that extremely unwell with reduced water and feed intake as well as any that look as if they have swollen heads.
In severe cases the main clinical signs are:
- Swollen head
- Blue discolouration of neck and throat
- Loss of appetite
- Respiratory distress such as gaping beak, coughing, sneezing, gurgling, rattling
- Fewer eggs laid
- Increased mortality
- Clinical signs can vary between species and some may show minimal clinical signs (ducks and geese).
Avian Influenza is a notifiable disease and if any of these symptoms are present, you need to report it immediately to the APHA on 03000 200 301, DEFRA, or to your vet who can make the report on your behalf. The APHA can then investigate and back up with laboratory testing, if needed.
UK Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens said: “Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands, you are now legally required to meet enhanced biosecurity requirements and it is in your interests to do so, to protect your birds from this highly infectious virus.”
“We are continuing to see cases of bird flu in wild birds across the country which is why, if you keep birds, it is absolutely essential that you do all you can to protect them and help prevent the spread of the disease… and you should report any suspicions of disease in your birds to Defra on 03459 33 55 77.”
What precautions should I take?
For those who keep birds outside (whether a few or a large flock) DEFRA recommend that the following measures are met to reduce the risk of your birds catching Avian Influenza:
- Ensure the areas where birds are kept are unattractive to wild birds – for example, by netting ponds and removing wild bird food sources
- Feed and water your birds in enclosed areas to discourage wild birds
- Minimise movement in and out of bird enclosures
- Clean and disinfect footwear and keep areas where birds live clean and tidy
- Reduce any existing contamination by cleansing and disinfecting concrete areas and fencing off wet or boggy areas
- Keepers with more than 500 birds are required to take extra biosecurity measures, including restricting access to non-essential people, changing clothing and footwear before entering bird enclosures and cleaning and disinfecting vehicles.
- Defra said there are no plans to carry out any culls or put movement restrictions in place for now, and clarified that the prevention zone does not apply to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Am I at risk? How bird flu spreads to humans
Bird flu isn’t transmitted through cooked food, so cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat in areas that have experienced outbreaks of bird flu.
There have been no human cases of H5N8 and whilst it is highly unlikely to affect humans, infected birds still can pose a risk. If you have travelled to a high risk area within two weeks of flu-like symptoms appearing, you should seek medical advice.
Bird flu is spread through direct contact with infected birds (dead or alive), an infected bird’s droppings, or secretions from their eyes or respiratory tract.
Close and prolonged contact with an infected bird is generally required for the infection to spread to humans. For example:
- touching infected birds that are dead or alive
- inhaling or being in contact with dried dust from the droppings or bedding of infected birds
- inhaling or being in contact with droplets sneezed by infected birds
- culling, slaughtering, butchering or preparing infected poultry for cooking
Another possible source of bird flu can be live markets, where birds are sold in crowded and sometimes unsanitary conditions. Avoid visiting these markets if you’re travelling in countries that have had an outbreak of bird flu.
Sources: Farmer’s Weekly, APHA, NHS UK