Infection rates for avian flu in the United Kingdom are six weeks higher than this time last year, prompting officials to tighten biosecurity measures.
|Biosecurity measures on chicken farms in the United Kingdom have been increased. Getty Images/Mint Images
The United Kingdom is bracing for the worst avian flu outbreak in its history this winter, with officials warning of a rapid rise in infections over the past month.
According to the Animal and Plant Health Agency, infections are six weeks ahead of where they were this time last year (APHA). There are currently 47 active outbreaks in the UK, with 30 of them confirmed since the beginning of October.
The APHA imposed a "prevention zone" across England, Scotland, and Wales this week in an effort to contain the influenza virus, which spreads through infected droppings. The Northern Irish government has implemented a similar policy.
This means that farmers and amateur bird owners across the UK will have to tighten biosecurity precautions, such as changing their clothes and shoes before entering enclosures and disinfecting vehicles used on site.
However, with high levels of infection among wild bird populations, there is growing concern that the outbreak may be impossible to contain.
Christine Middlemiss, the UK's chief veterinary officer, described the situation as unprecedented. "We've never had to do anything like this before. "We've never had this level of environmental infection that poses such a risk before," she told the BBC.
Cases of avian flu have been reported in the UK on a regular basis for decades, but there has been a record number of outbreaks in the last year, caused by a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the virus.
Since October 2021, approximately 3.5 million captive birds have been culled, while the virus has ravaged wild populations, particularly the UK's globally recognized seabird colonies.
Normally, the summer months bring relief, but not this year. For the first time, new outbreaks were recorded in June, July, and August.
"There's a lot more virus out there than we've had in previous years," APHA's Andy Paterson said at a press conference. "We certainly haven't had the summer vacation that we would have expected."
Officials warn that this means the UK will enter the winter and the next migratory season with higher levels of the virus circulating. Millions of ducks, swans, geese, and other migrating birds will arrive in the UK over the next few weeks, exacerbating the threat.
Read more: A UK bird flu research project to protect poultry and seabirds has been launched.
The H5N1 virus was discovered in Guangdong province in southern China in 1996 and has since spread throughout the world through infected wild birds. Scientists believe the current outbreak, which has also wreaked havoc in continental Europe and the United States, is the result of a minor mutation in the virus that allows it to survive in the natural environment for longer periods of time, allowing it to spread more effectively through wild bird populations.
Officials have little control over the virus's spread among wild birds. Instead, containment efforts are aimed at isolating captive birds from wild populations.
Climate change is making this more difficult, with last winter's storm damage and floodwaters aiding in the spread of infected droppings into captive flocks. As more severe weather systems approach, officials say it is more important than ever for farmers to batten down the hatches.
If the biosecurity measures put in place this week fail to reduce the number of new outbreaks, the next step is a nationwide housing order, which would require all captive birds to be kept indoors and away from wild populations until further notice.
Between November and May of last year, a housing order was in effect, requiring farmers to remove free-range labels from eggs and meat.