Tens of thousands of birds, including turkeys, have reportedly already been culled. It is thought that the “largest number of premises ever” have become infected in an outbreak of avian flu. The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has said that the risk to human health from the avian flu A(H5N1) virus is “very low”, and has no risk to coronavirus, but members of the public are strongly advised not to touch diseased birds.
But the UK’s chief vet, Dr Christine Middlemiss, warned that this flu could still have a massive impact.
She said: “It has huge human, animal, and trade implications.”
Dr Middlemiss also said that lessons learned from the foot-and-mouth outbreak are being used to try to control the outbreak.
On Wednesday, there were reportedly 38 confirmed infected premises in Britain.
31 of those were in England, with three in Wales, two in Scotland, and two in Northern Ireland.
There was a total of 26 confirmed cases last year.
The types of premises infected include everything from bird sanctuaries and small flocks kept in gardens or yards, up to big commercial farms.
Curlews, barnacle geese, peregrine falcons, and herring gulls are some of the wild bird species to have died or are dying from avian flu.
The disease is mainly spread by migratory wild birds which come back to the UK and infect other birds.
Dr Middlemiss warned that Britain is only a few weeks into the migratory season, which usually lasts until March.
She said: “We are going to need to keep up these levels of heightened biosecurity for all that time.”
On November 3, an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared across the UK.
On 29 November, this was extended, requiring all bird owners to keep their animals inside.
Dr Middlemiss explained that there was a high level of infection in wild birds coming back from the north of Russia and the east of Europe after the summer.
But she said that the availability of eggs in supermarkets is unlikely to be affected as only a low number of farms have been affected compared to overall egg production.
Dr Middlemiss said: “Whilst we’re happy that there are not going to be any food supply issues, because of the overall large number of chickens and eggs and things we produce, it is devastating for those individual companies involved.
“It’s also devastating for people who keep yard flocks.”
The first detection of the H5N1 strain of Avian flu this season was in rescued swans and captive poultry at a swan sanctuary in Worcester on October 15.
Dr Middlemiss stressed that “the absolute key” is biosecurity, adding that chicken sheds must be kept “as clean as a surgical theatre”.
She said that this would reduce the chance of wild birds from coming into contact with kept birds.
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Her biosecurity message comes after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak back in 2001 resulted in the culling of six million cows and sheep after 2000 cases of the disease were detected in farms across the country.
But while foot-and-mouth was transmitted via cattle-to-cattle contact, avian flu is mainly by wild birds, which means it can be far harder to control.
But the UK is not the only country suffering from an avian flu outbreak.
Dr Middlemiss said: “We’re not on our own.
“There are a large number of outbreaks across the EU happening. This is a different strain from last year.
“We do need to understand why we are seeing more year-on-year outbreaks, and understand what’s behind that.”