After a second year in a row of heavy losses in the poultry sector due to highly pathogenic bird flu, France soon introduced strict biosecurity measures for the coming season.
The rapid development of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) situation in France led the Ministry of Agriculture to raise the alert level from “low” to “medium” at the end of last week. As a result of increasing mortality in both commercial poultry and wild birds, preventive measures will be renewed.
During the summer, cases decreased to a lower level, although – unlike in previous years – new cases continued to be reported in France during these months. In recent weeks, the number of wild bird deaths has risen to “several hundreds”, the ministry said, even before the wild bird migration reached its seasonal peak.
Of particular concern are the 18 confirmed outbreaks on French poultry farms since August (as of September 29). Affecting birds in 11 departments, according to the ministry, indicate the persistence of the HPAI H5N1 virus serotype in the environment.
Last week, the European Commission approved the payment of €15.4 million ($15.1 million) in state aid from the French government to poultry farmers affected by HPAI during the 2022-2023 season.
Frances establishes a new disease control zone
New control measures introduced in France include the requirement to keep poultry in high-risk areas. This includes wetlands and wetlands through which migration corridors pass, especially for waterfowl such as ducks and geese, in areas with high poultry densities.
In addition, the testing of farmed waterfowl is being intensified in these areas.
In addition to a 3 km protection zone and a 10 km surveillance zone around each outbreak, there will be additional requirements within 10-20 km of the outbreak. Poultry in this area will need to be contained and regularly checked for HPAI. In addition, the placement of birds will only be permitted after the premises have passed a biosecurity audit.
Once the outbreak is confirmed, hunting will be restricted in the area.
Last but not least, a 20 km temporary control zone will be established around any case of HPAI in wild animals. In this area, poultry must be restricted and additional tests for HPAI must be carried out.
Since the first cases of HPAI in France in November 2021, 1,393 outbreaks associated with the H5N1 virus variant have been officially reported to the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH). More than 16 million commercial poultry were directly affected, as were more than 2,000 backyard birds and 1,000 wild birds.
In the last three weeks alone, the French veterinary authority has confirmed 10 farm outbreaks affecting more than 198,000 birds to WOAH.
Western European countries are seeing increasing cases of HPAI in poultry
The early start of the HPAI season is not just a problem in France.
Over the past three weeks, the Netherlands has reported eight new outbreaks involving a total of more than 400,000 poultry to WOAH.
In the German state of Lower Saxony, almost 87,000 poultry were affected in four new outbreaks.
In the United Kingdom (U.K.), four outbreaks during September brought the total to 101 in the last 10 months. Poultry numbers directly affected by mortality and culling now exceed three million.
The last positive test for the H5N1 HPAI virus in Belgium was around 213,000 poultry on three farms in one town in East Flanders.
In Spain, the virus was detected in two more flocks of laying hens in early September, totaling about 752,000 birds. The affected farms were both in the province of Guadalajara in Castilla-La Mancha. These were the first cases of H5N1 in this central Spanish autonomous region.
The first HPAI outbreaks in fall/autumn were reported in Italy and Poland.
After declaring the previous series of HPAI closed in April this year, the Italian Veterinary Office registered the country’s first outbreak of this season at WOAH in September. The presence of the H5N1 virus serotype was confirmed after 10 birds died on a farm in the northwestern Veneto region.
In Poland, only one month passed between the closure of the previous series of HPAI outbreaks and the detection of the first H5N1 cases in the central province of Łódź.
According to the main veterinary office, a sharp increase in mortality was observed in 1,643 meat geese and 43 hens on the infected farm.
Overall situation in commercial poultry flocks
As of September 25, 1,844 outbreaks of HPAI have been reported in Europe so far this year. This follows from the latest update of the Information System for Animal Diseases by the European Commission (EC). In total, this represents an increase of 32 outbreaks since September 5.
To date, there have been one or more outbreaks in 21 European countries since the beginning of 2022.
Since the beginning of September, Serbia has been added to this list with three confirmed outbreaks.
For comparison, the figure from this season exceeded the total of 1,756 outbreaks registered with the EC in 24 European countries for the entire year 2021.
This year, France was the country that reported the most outbreaks to the European Commission (1,363). It was followed by Hungary (205), the Netherlands (57), Germany (53) and Poland and Spain (36 each).
A rising number of cases among European backyard flocks
The EC has recently introduced a separate category for HPAI outbreaks in captive birds in its reporting system. There are a total of 121 of them this year (as of September 25) within non-commercial poultry flocks, zoos and similar spaces.
With 47 this year, France leads the nations of the region in this type of outbreak, followed by the Netherlands (34). None of the other 13 countries have reported more than eight outbreaks in captive birds so far this year.
Since 5 September, the Netherlands has registered cases with the EC in 13 more backyard flocks. Other outbreaks were also reported in captive birds in France (five), Belgium (two), and Germany and the United Kingdom, with one each.
Over the past three weeks, the German Veterinary Office has registered cases of HPAI in seven more non-commercial poultry flocks – four in Schleswig-Holstein and three in Lower Saxony.
Based on WOAH reports, there have also been seven other outbreaks in the Netherlands (including hobby flocks of pheasants), five other outbreaks in France, two at poultry traders in Belgium and one on the island of Jersey (a self-governing dependency of the United Kingdom located in the English Channel).
After a single backyard outbreak linked to the H5N1 virus variant in May, Croatia officially declared the series of HPAI outbreaks “closed” for WOAH.
Moldova made a similar statement. During July and early August of this year, two non-commercial flocks in the western district of Falesti were involved in HPAI outbreaks.
Last but not least, Sweden has also closed the H5N1 HPAI situation in birds other than commercial poultry. This was followed by 79 confirmed outbreaks involving 152 captive birds.
HPAI outbreaks in wild birds continue across Europe
In the year to September 25, a total of 2,663 outbreaks of HPAI in wild birds were reported to the EC. One or more outbreaks have now been confirmed in 32 European states in 2022. For the first time this year, this number includes Serbia (four outbreaks).
Of the total, more than 40% (1,131) of outbreaks were reported in Germany, followed by the Netherlands (542) and France (237). Over the previous three weeks, totals also increased for Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Northern Ireland.
In comparison, the EC disease system recorded a total of 2,437 outbreaks of HPAI in farmed and wild birds in 31 European countries during the whole of 2021.
The UK, which is not covered by the EC scheme (with the exception of Northern Ireland), has registered a further 22 cases of HPAI in wild birds with WOAH.
In all the outbreaks described above, tests were positive for the H5N1 serotype of the HPAI virus.
The H5N5 serotype was first detected in Finland. In mid-September, a dead eagle found tested positive for this variant of the virus, according to a WOAH announcement.
Meanwhile, Norway announced that another dead seagull found was infected with the same serotype of the virus. It is the country’s 22nd positive case.
The disease situation in Russia
The EC system does not monitor the HPAI situation in Russia.
The HPAI H5N1 virus serotype was detected for the first time since the beginning of 2021 in the Volga Federal District in western Russia.
According to a recent announcement to WOAH, five birds tested positive for the virus at a farm in the Saratov Region in mid-August. Five of the 8,000 poultry there died. In early September, an infected flock of 20 backyard birds was found in the same area.
In addition, the mass mortality of nearly 7,000 wild waterfowl in the Southern Federal District of Russia has also been linked to the H5N1 virus. The latest WOAH report says they include 4,800 gulls, 2,000 terns and 13 Dalmatian pelicans.