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Avian Influenza
on July 1, 2009

Poland learns about H5N1 the hard way

Further outbreaks of avian flu have occurred and the virus has been found in wild birds.

Poland is learning the hard way how the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) incurs huge costs in more ways than one. The country is a big exporter of poultry products.

The first two outbreaks in turkeys occurred near the town of Płock (Brudzen Duzy county) in Mazowieckie province in central Poland. These were small farms but there have since been two further outbreaks on large farms in the same province.

First of the new outbreaks occurred on 8 December 2007 in Zuromin county, some 50km from index outbreak at Brudzen Duzy and involved over 100,000 birds. This was rapidly followed by another outbreak on a huge farm with more than 350,000 birds near the town of Sadłowo in Bieżuń county. These farms are in the far north-west of Mazowieckie province.

Following the Zuromin outbreak, provincial veterinary officer, Pawel Jakubczak told a news conference that the required cull of around 110,000 birds would begin the next day (9 December). There are 52 large-scale poultry farms and 232 smaller, family-owned holdings within the 3km protection zone around this outbreak, which involved multiple infection sites was identified across 11 different villages.

H5N1 was still spreading two days later when a fourth outbreak was found at Sadlowo, just 2km away. Poland’s Agricultural Minister, Marek Sawicki, confirmed the outbreak and the immediate cull of 360,000 birds on 10 December. He said the economic consequences of the epidemic were ‘serious’. These new big outbreaks involve chickens.

Implications for trade

Reports from the Polish press and news agencies including Thenews.pl, Poland.pl and Warsaw Business Journal expressed concerns about huge financial losses already accumulating within this large industry with significant exports, especially to other European Union members. Last year, Poland exported 230,000 tonnes of poultry to other EU member states.

Effects are already felt with exports banned by Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Hong Kong. In line with EU rules, restrictions were imposed on poultry from within the initial 3km protection and 10km surveillance zones around the first outbreaks.

Poland is expecting an extension of the restrictions to cover exports after the new outbreaks. “We have informed the European Commission of the areas from which meat and eggs cannot be exported and expect the ban to be extended by probably another two weeks,” chief veterinary officer Ewa Lech told a news conference on 9 December.

Losses to Polish poultry farmers are escalating alarmingly. Ministry of Agriculture’s projections are already at 10 million Polish zlotych (PLN; US$4.1m) and rising. Local press claimed compensation would be paid, with the Agriculture Minister confirming that money is ready for farmers and will be paid after a special commission confirms the losses. He went on to explain that all farmers who had incurred costs would get full equivalent of the poultry lost.

There were worrying reports that poultry processors were refusing to fulfil contracts with producers because of the outbreak. Minister Sawacki countered this by claiming that there are no obstacles to the selling and processing of poultry, adding he was meeting with both sides to sort out the problem.

He appealed for vigilance and prompt reporting of poultry disease and mortalities, adding that farmers should also take extra care with hygiene of feed, feeding procedures and the houses and space where poultry is kept, as well complying with veterinary requests.

Price falls for poultry products in Poland were predicted but not on a big scale. “The outbreak will not bring about a big fall in production but will cause a drop in price of around 5%,” Professor Roman Urban of the Institute of Agriculture and Food Economics, National Research Institute (IERiGŻ-PIB) told Warsaw Business Journal.

Professor Urban said it was impossible to predict the ramifications of further outbreaks as it would be dependent on reactions of European consumers. At best, he thought exports would still grow but at a slower pace. Poland’s only previous experience with H5N1 – in 2006 – involved a few infected wild swans in the northern city of Toruń and that caused considerable financial losses without even affecting poultry.

Warsaw’s stock exchange was relatively unaffected by the outbreaks. Indykpol, the only listed poultry company, registered a 3% drop in share value on 10 December, the first day of trading following news of the latest outbreaks. HPAI has already been found on a number of Indykpol's farms, according to the daily, Puls Biznesu.

Most serious outbreak in EU to date

Given the rapid spread of H5N1 and intensity of industrial poultry production in the affected province, this is potentially the most serious H5N1 outbreak to hit any EU country so far, and will clearly require prompt and drastic action for eradication from poultry. The virus is now lodged in the centre of Poland’s poultry industry.

Most agricultural and food companies within the region have operations in the poultry sector. “Despite this fact, the farms are rarely controlled by veterinarians and none of them insure the production,” Rajmund Paczkowski, president of the national poultry council told Warsaw Business Journal. The demand for poultry has fallen in the largest domestic retail chains by several percent during the past few days and prices have now fallen by 10-15%.

Agricultural Minister, Marek Sawicki, says that he is hopeful that Poland’s poultry industry would not be affected by the outbreak, citing experience of previous outbreaks in Germany and United Kingdom. There are major differences, however: Germany’s summer 2007 H5N1 event was caught very early, and in the UK, it was turkeys that were affected and infection was confirmed as the very first bird deaths occurred. In Poland, it appears that the virus and disease may have been present in the poultry population for at least three weeks before being identified and confirmed.

Russian reaction

According to RIA Novosti, Russia has imposed temporary restrictions on the import of poultry, eggs and all poultry products from Poland following the outbreak of HPAI. Russia's agricultural watchdog, Rosselkhoznadzor, said the restrictions also applied to poultry feed, feed additives and used equipment.

In reality, this reaction has little significance because Poland is still subject to a two-year Russian embargo on its meat products over allegations that Poland was supplying poor-quality meat from third countries. On 11 December, Russia announced that 35,000 birds were dying from suspected HPAI on a huge poultry farm in Russia's southern Rostov region.

Infection in wild birds found

Polish authorities blame wild birds for introducing the disease into the country. It has recently been confirmed that a number of H5N1-infected wild birds have been found and are held at a bird sanctuary in Krzykaly in Warminsko-Mazurskie province. This borders Mazowieckie province, where the outbreaks in commercial poultry have occurred. There are several chicken farms near Krzykaly, housing a total of 45,000 birds. 

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