AFBI Scientists Safeguard Local Poultry Industry

Date published: 22 February 2017

Area of Expertise:

Avian influenza poses a serious disease risk to the global poultry industry. The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) subtype H5N8 first emerged across Europe and Asia in 2014, causing deaths in wild bird populations and outbreaks in domestic poultry flocks.

In recent weeks avian influenza has been detected in wild bird species in a number of countries including the UK and Republic of Ireland.

In 2016, H5N8 re-emerged in multiple countries across Europe and Asia. The virus was first detected in a wild swan in Hungary in October with a subsequent outbreak at a commercial turkey farm in November. In recent weeks the virus has been detected in wild bird species in Switzerland, Croatia, Austria, Poland, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, Romania, The United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland. As of February 2017, there have been numerous findings of H5N8 in wild birds in the UK, and 9 outbreaks  in captive birds. Four of these outbreaks occurred in flocks containing more than 10,000 birds, including two game flocks and two poultry flocks.

While the risk to people from H5N8 strain is considered very low because of the potential impact on the poultry industry, European Union (EU) regulations require disease control measures to be implemented upon detection of H5N8, including culling of infected domestic flocks and control zones placed around affected premises. No such controls are required around wild bird findings. The economic impact of HPAI outbreaks in commercial flocks, or indeed in backyard flocks near commercial premises, is potentially huge. This is particularly true for Northern Ireland, given the importance of the poultry industry to the local economy and for this reason the early detection of the disease in wild birds is essential.

The Veterinary Sciences Division (VSD) at AFBI carries out surveillance and detection of epizootic disease threats and contingency planning as part of its assigned work program for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). As part of the wild bird surveillance programme, swans recently collected near Lough Beg in Co. Londonderry by DAERA officials were tested at AFBI for the presence of influenza virus by real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RRT-PCR), a highly sensitive molecular technique considered the gold standard for detection of influenza and other viral pathogens. Scientists at AFBI quickly established that the swans were positive for influenza virus and subsequent tests confirmed the presence of H5N8 HPAI. DAERA was notified within 24 hours. Upon positive identification of H5N8, samples were sent to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in Weybridge for confirmatory testing who confirmed the presence of H5N8.

AFBI anticipates there is a strong likelihood of additional detections of H5N8 in wild birds in the coming weeks.  AFBI and DAERA are continuing to monitor the situation closely and have increased surveillance activity in response to the current heightened threat. Poultry keepers are being urged to reinforce biosecurity measures on their premises to help mitigate the risk and to notify DAERA immediately if they suspect avian influenza in their flock, so that this can be quickly investigated.

Due to the ongoing avian influenza situation, and as a precautionary measure to help reduce the risk of infection from wild birds, there is currently an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) in place in Northern Ireland. While the current AIPZ is in place until the 16 March 2017, it is being kept under review. The AIPZ requires keepers of poultry and other captive birds, including those with small flocks, to keep their birds indoors, or take appropriate steps to keep them separate from wild birds. It also bans gatherings of certain species of birds.

The rapid detection of HPAI by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute underlines the critical role played by the Institute in safeguarding the Northern Irish poultry industry and highlights the importance of maintaining cutting edge local capabilities within AFBI to respond to emerging disease threats.

Notes to editors: 

AFBI carries out high quality technology research and development, statutory, analytical, and diagnostic testing functions for DAERA and other Government departments, public bodies and commercial companies.

AFBI's Vision is “Scientific excellence in Northern Ireland …  serving the world”.

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