During the past year, approximately 48 million birds have been culled due to the largest avian influenza outbreak across the UK and Europe on record. In the UK alone, around 160 cases of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) have been detected in poultry and captive birds, resulting in 3.2 million birds being culled. Unless strong mitigation measures are implemented, the outbreak will likely continue to spread.
Bird flu is a disease caused by infection with avian influenza type A viruses. The disease has a global presence among wild aquatic birds, with infections also occurring in domestic poultry and other birds and animal species. While bird flu is not typically a zoonotic disease, there have been sporadic human infections with bird flu viruses in the past, with the disease being spread through close contact with an infected bird.
With transmission being of a seasonal nature, the first cases of avian influenza in Europe typically emerge in the late autumn, with a peak transmission period between December and February. The seasonality of the disease mirrors that of human influenza, for which case numbers also typically rise over the autumn and winter. According to GlobalData’s forecast, over 1,100,000 incident cases of lab-confirmed influenza are expected in the five major European markets (5EU) (UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) in 2022. However, mitigation measures used for Covid-19 have had a significant impact on the epidemiology of influenza. Non-pharmaceutical interventions such as mask-wearing, lockdowns, and school closures, combined with reduced laboratory surveillance, have resulted in very low case numbers of human influenza over the course of the pandemic.
Bird flu has currently been detected at over 150 sites across the UK. The main method to control the disease involves the isolation and culling of infected poultry. GlobalData expects that as the outbreak continues to progress, the culling and safe disposal of infected birds and poultry will be required at a large scale to mitigate the spread of disease. One particular challenge that relies on community reporting is to ensure that the carcasses of infected wild birds are swiftly removed from local waterways. These measures should be well supported by biosecurity strategies from public health authorities. Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) implemented a housing order that legally required birdkeepers in the UK to comply with stringent biosecurity measures and keep their flocks indoors. With the continuation of the outbreak, it is possible that this measure will be reintroduced over the coming weeks.