UK bird flu research project launched to protect poultry and seabirds
Although avian (bird) influenza (flu) A viruses seldom infect humans, there have been a few isolated occurrences of human infection. Human illness caused by bird flu virus infections has ranged in severity from no symptoms to moderate illness to life-threatening disease. Viruses of Asian lineage H7N9 and highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses of Asian lineage H5N1 have been responsible for the majority of human sickness caused by bird flu viruses worldwide to date, including the most serious illnesses and deaths.
Infected birds spread the bird flu virus through their saliva, mucus, and faeces. Infections with bird flu viruses can occur when the virus enters a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth, or when they inhale the virus. Infections with bird flu viruses in humans have most commonly arisen as a result of inappropriate exposure to infectious birds or surfaces contaminated with bird flu viruses
Scientists have launched a one-year, £1.5 million research effort to battle the highly pathogenic type of bird flu that is wreaking havoc on UK seabirds and putting strain on poultry farms.
With reports last week of an increasing amount of seabirds – ranging from gannets and guillemots to razorbills and skuas – being discovered dead on UK beaches, the possibility of the disease spreading to and from poultry is increasing. Last winter, the UK saw a total of 122 poultry cases, up from 26 the year before. Meanwhile, over 1100 cases of the disease have been discovered in wild birds, up from around 300 the previous winter.
Ian Brown of the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency expects that the government-funded FluMap project will assist researchers to fill in knowledge gaps regarding how the H5N1 influenza is evolving and how it is infecting poultry farms.
“The expansion into wild birds has changed the game since it has now become a transcontinental issue.” It’s similar to a bird flu epidemic. “It will affect food security, and there are concerns about public health,” Brown says, though he adds that the current hazard to human health is relatively modest. Seabirds are already under stress due to overfishing and climate change, so conservationists are concerned about the additional stress.
Identifying how the flu transmits from wild birds to farming chickens and ducks will be a major priority for the eight research organizations and universities involved in FluMap. At 4°C, the virus can live for eight weeks, so feces left on grassland near a poultry facility could be contagious for weeks. Smaller birds, such as sparrows, could operate as “bridging species,” passing the virus on to poultry, according to other theories.
Brown believes that humans are to blame for much of the spread. Visitors to chicken farms, for example, may bring the virus in on their shoes unknowingly. It’s possible that wild birds were exposed to straw heaped for use as bedding in poultry farms.
While there is no way to prevent the virus from spreading to wild birds, Brown thinks that reducing virus infections in poultry will help wild birds by reducing the likelihood of “spillover” from domestic to wild birds. Chicken farms were the disease’s starting point.