Update: 9th December, 2021
Since this article was published ten days ago, the disease has continued to spread. The environment secretary has confirmed this autumn’s outbreak as the largest that has ever occurred in the UK. According the government’s website, there are currently 33 infected premises in England, two each in Scotland and Northern Ireland and three in Wales. Half a million birds have so far been culled. In our region, Barrow upon Soar has now seen cases in four different premises while Tutbury (in Staffordshire but only 7 miles from Willington) has also had a confirmed case. In better news, Droitwich and Bidford near Stratford have had their control zones revoked.
When Covid simply isn’t enough
It’s just as well that we’re getting used to dangerous flu-like illnesses casting shadows over Christmas. As well as the emerging threat of the new omicron variant of Covid-19, an outbreak of avian flu has been spreading through the UK’s bird population for the last month. This has implications for our already-endangered Christmas turkey but also, possibly, for our health.
What is Avian flu?
Avian flu is caused by an influenza virus that infects wild birds and poultry. It is unrelated to Covid-19 (which is a coronavirus, not an influenza virus) but is similar to swine flu and indeed human flu. Whilst cross-species infection is uncommon, avian flu can jump to humans and domestic pets, transmission occurring via contact with infected material (dead or sick birds or their droppings).
Since 2003, 332 people world-wide have died of avian flu, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Human-to-human transmission is rare but there is concern that future mutations could make it easier. So far, I have found nothing to suggest that anyone in Britain has caught avian flu this year but do tell us if you know otherwise.
In a similar fashion to Covid-19, human beings have enabled this virus. The higher frequency of outbreaks since the 1990s is largely the result of increasing commercial production and internal housing of poultry.
What’s happening this time?
The first case of the current outbreak in England was recorded at a bird rescue centre in Droitwich at the end of October. Throughout November, the outbreak rippled outwards and has now reached all four corners of the UK mainland with cases recorded in Dundee, Bournemouth, Anglesey and Norfolk.
In our region, Stratford-upon-Avon, Barrow upon Soar in Leicestershire and Willington in South Derbyshire have recorded cases with many other areas deemed high risk. In all cases, the strain has been identified as a highly pathogenic H5N1 subtype.
Half of Stratford’s swans have died
The cases in Derbyshire and Leicestershire have occurred on poultry farms but in Stratford upon Avon, it is the town’s famous and much-loved wild swans that have been affected. About half of the colony of eighty swans is believed to have died. Stratford’s former mayor, Cyril Bennis, who now runs Stratford Swan Rescue, described the deaths as “truly devastating”.
Meanwhile, fifty miles away in Northampton, local residents are forbidden from swimming in the River Nene because of recent swan deaths that are, as yet, unexplained. Northampton has yet to record any cases of avian flu but is in a high risk area.
What’s being done about it?
All birds on infected premises are culled. In last year’s H5N8 outbreak, tens of thousands of birds had to be put to death.
A country-wide Avian Influenza Protection Zone (AIPZ) was declared on 4th November and upgraded to include more severe measures only yesterday (29th). The AIPZ mandates any keeper of poultry or other birds to take specific measures with regard to housing, feeding and hygiene in order to contain the virus. In addition to the AIPZ, 3km control zones and 10km surveillance zones have been imposed around the areas that have recorded cases. These regulations will affect you if you keep birds or visit people who keep birds.
The birds are basically under lockdown. It’s somewhat discombobulating to realise that the government’s measures to control avian flu are currently far more stringent than its measures to control Covid-19.
Can I still feed my garden birds?
Yes absolutely, but be sensible. Don’t touch dead or sick birds, don’t touch bird droppings. Avian flu is a notifiable disease. Should you come across a dead or sick bird, please report it to Defra.
Will this keep happening?
Yes, it will. The H5N1 variant has already been marked as having the potential to cause a future pandemic. Zoonoses (diseases that jump from animals to humans) are on the rise generally. This is going to keep happening as long as we keep trashing the health of our ecosystems.
The health of our planet and the animals we share it with is not just an ethical issue, it is a matter of public health and needs to be addressed urgently.