Let the virus slip from our hands. Five questions about bird flu


NOS . News

  • Eliane Lamber

    Online Editor

  • Eliane Lamber

    Online Editor

The new bird flu season is approaching, while the previous outbreak is still ongoing. More than 626,000 heads of animals have been killed this month alone. Yesterday, a poultry farm in Drenthe experienced its largest culling since the first outbreak of the current season, almost a year ago.

The bird flu season did not last that long, and the number of outbreaks continues to increase, which worries biologists and virologists. They fear the virus will never go away. Five questions and answers about bird flu.

1. What is going on?

In the Netherlands, we have been dealing with bird flu for nearly twenty years, but the virus has also never happened in the summer before. “The outbreak since last fall is the largest ever in Europe,” says virologist Thijs Kuiken of Erasmus MC who specializes in bird flu. “More than 4 million birds have been killed in the Netherlands”. Since October last year, poultry have been culled on about 120 farms.

Avian influenza occurs naturally in wild birds, but they can become infected without getting sick. In poultry, the virus can transform into a pathogenic type. If an infected feather or a small amount of contaminated manure ends up in a coop, the disease can spread very quickly and thousands of animals can die. Because of this risk of contamination, all poultry on an infected farm are culled.

2. Why does bird flu last longer than usual?

“The special thing about the current bird flu is that the pathogen from poultry has been passed on to wild birds, so they spread it far away,” Kuiken says. Migratory birds usually bring the bird flu virus to the Netherlands in October. In April, they left for the east again, until the virus disappeared again. Wild birds in the Netherlands are now also infected and stay here in the summer.

As a result, we had to deal with an outbreak last summer. “We let the virus slip off our fingers when it moved from poultry to wild birds,” says the virologist. “The pathogenic variant does not originally occur in nature, which was created by intensive poultry farming. And you cannot control wild birds.”

3. What can we do about bird flu?

The first step is to commit to house poultry to prevent rapid spread. In the short term, Quicken says, measures like a vaccine and yearly checking of stables could provide a solution. Vaccines are not used in Europe and the United States. This is already happening in South America and Asia.

The poultry sector is divided over the use of vaccines. A disadvantage of the companies is that vaccinated poultry products may not be exported abroad according to European regulations. At least two thirds of Dutch domestic birds go abroad.

In the long term, companies should not be located in areas with many waterfowl, says a group of zoonoses experts. “The companies are also very close to each other, as in Gelderse Vallei,” says Koiken, who is part of the group of experts. “This makes it easier to jump over.”

The density of poultry in the Netherlands is high, Koiken says, so the risk of an outbreak is high. More than 100 million chickens and other poultry birds are kept in the Netherlands.

4. How dangerous is bird flu to animals and humans?

In addition to wild birds and poultry, other animal species can also become infected. This year, for example, infected foxes and foxes were found in the Netherlands. There are also known cases of sea seals offshore, which can also transmit the virus to each other.

The virus is not harmful to humans. In the Netherlands, a veterinarian became infected and died during an outbreak in 2003. In China, many people have died from a type of bird flu in the past. For now, you don’t have to worry too much about the current virus, says the virologist. “But if the virus mutates and people can infect each other, the risk becomes very high.”

5. Shall we get rid of it?

Kuiken says that as long as there is intensive poultry farming, we will not get rid of bird flu. “Only if we adapt the entire poultry industry system can we rule it out in the long run.” In all likelihood, we will have to deal with the infection again in the summer of next year. “The disgusting virus has settled here and will remain here for the time being.”

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