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NEWS that there appears to have been no onward spread of the H5N8 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus from the turkey farm in Lincolnshire on which it was confirmed in December is welcome, but the confirmation on January 3 of a separate case in a backyard flock of chickens and ducks in Carmarthenshire is a reminder that the virus has not gone away. The finding of H5N8 virus in various species of wild bird across Great Britain means that poultry in all regions are at risk of infection and Defra's International Disease Monitoring (IDM) team is warning that the level of risk to individual premises is dependent less on geographical region than on the level of biosecurity present on farm. It is also warning that, given the geographical spread of the virus across Europe, Asia and West Africa, it is likely to remain an issue and pose a considerable risk to the UK's poultry sector for some time to come.
It was perhaps inevitable that the H5N8 virus would arrive in the UK this winter. It has been tracking across Europe, carried by migrating wild birds, and the UK had been on alert for an incursion as birds arrived at their wintering grounds. The confirmation of the case in Lincolnshire on December 16 came 10 days after Defra and the authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced avian influenza protection zones, requiring the keepers of poultry and other captive birds to keep their birds indoors, or to take appropriate steps to keep them separate from wild birds. Restrictions were subsequently imposed on gatherings of some species of birds that are at higher risk of avian influenza, and keepers and vets were encouraged to review and strengthen biosecurity measures.
Diseases such as avian influenza illustrate the importance of not just countrywide surveillance, but also of monitoring and sharing surveillance findings more widely. Migratory wild birds are truly international travellers and no movement restrictions or border controls will prevent them entering the country. Similarly, last year, Defra was warning of possible incursions of bluetongue virus, carried by windborne midges from France – a situation which, like avian influenza, could not have been prevented, only planned for. While, ultimately, bluetongue did not arrive, the sharing of surveillance information across Europe allowed plans to be made in the UK to mitigate potential disease outbreaks.
The IDM team carries out preliminary assessments of disease outbreaks, particularly when it is officially notified of a new disease incident in an EU member state. Information about disease events in the UK is shared with the EU and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The APHA's laboratory at Weybridge acts as the EU's reference laboratory for avian influenza and is providing regular situation assessments following the detection and spread of H5N8 HPAI across the EU. The laboratory is part of the OFFLU network, a global network of expertise on animal influenza established jointly by the OIE and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The value of membership of such networks cannot be underestimated and, as Brexit looms, efforts must be made to ensure links are maintained and that information continues to be shared whatever the eventual outcome of negotiations might be.
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