The alarming spread of bird flu in the UK

| Post published on January 6, 2022
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Person in disease control suit walking through bird factory farm

There is a deadly infection spreading around the UK at unprecedented levels – avian influenza or bird flu.

This morning, it was announced that a person living in the southwest of England has caught bird flu. Experts say there is no evidence of onward spread and all close contacts of the person are being monitored.

Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, is a type of flu that spreads among birds. Person-to-person transmission is rare, but when it does occur, fatality rates among those infected have been high (over 50 per cent).

In the UK’s largest-ever outbreak, the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) are reporting new cases in captive birds almost daily. Since late October, over 70 premises have been infected and about one million birds have been culled to stop the spread of bird flu in Lincolnshire, the BBC estimates.

By comparison, there were 26 outbreaks in the UK during the entire winter last year. An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ), including strict biosecurity measures, came into force across Great Britain at the start of November and towards the end of the month was extended to require all birds to be kept indoors.

The poultry industry likes to blame the spread of bird flu on migratory birds. So far this winter, over 300 wild birds have been found with the disease at more than 80 locations.

Juliet Gellatley, founder and director of Viva! says: “The real problem is factory farming. Whilst wild birds undoubtedly contribute to the local spread of the virus in the wild, it is human commercial activities, particularly those associated with poultry, that are the major factors responsible for the global spread of bird flu.

“Large, industrial sized units, housing tens of thousands of birds, provide the ideal environment for infectious diseases to spread and mutate. Viva! have been into these hellholes and exposed the horrific conditions these birds are forced to endure during their short lives.

“Over one billion chickens are slaughtered for their meat in the UK every year and around 95 per cent are intensively reared on factory farms. There are 24 billion chickens in the world – more than three birds for every single person on the planet. Whichever way you look at it, domesticated poultry are massively over-represented among the world’s bird population.”

The rate of spread in the UK is expected to continue but no one knows why it’s getting worse each winter. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Chief Veterinary Officer of the UK, Christine Middlemiss, said: “I am very concerned about what’s happening” as the disease continues to hit more poultry farms and bird sanctuaries.

Avian influenza viruses are among the most dangerous viruses that can affect humans. In people, H5N1 has a case fatality rate of around 50 per cent. Seasonal flu kills around 0.1 per cent (one in 1,000) of those infected. Luckily, H5N1 is not easily caught or spread between humans, yet! There have been a handful of person-to-person infections among families caring for sick relatives and scientists are concerned. We’ve all seen how viruses mutate – the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, for example, is much more transmissible than the Delta variant.

Senior public health expert at the World Health Organisation, David Nabarro, warned that should it mutate and become more transmissible, a pandemic caused by H5N1 could result in a death rate of anywhere between five and 150 million people.

Writing in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, scientists said: “If this virus acquires human-to-human transmissibility with its present fatality rate of 50 per cent, the resulting pandemic would be akin to a global tsunami. If it killed those infected at even a fraction of this rate, the results would be catastrophic.”

Viva! says it’s time to End Factory Farming before it ends us!

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
I joined Viva! as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. My scientific training helped me research and write numerous reports, guides and fact sheets for Viva! including Meat the Truth, Fish-Free for Life, One in Nine (breast cancer and diet) and the substantial report on the detrimental health effects of consuming dairy; White Lies. This accompanied Viva!’s report The Dark Side of Dairy which spelt out the inherent cruelty of dairy farming. We were the first UK group to take on the dairy industry in this way, and many of our supporters go vegan after reading these reports.

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