As 2012 drew to a close, there was both good news and bad news concerning avian influenza. 

Let’s start with the bad, as it would be nice to finish on a positive note. In mid-December 2012, the World Health Organization reported that there had been 610 laboratory confirmed cases of avian influenza H5N1 in humans since 2003, resulting in 360 deaths. These cases occurred in 15 countries and in 2012 alone there were 32 cases of human infection. 

November and December 2012 saw reports of human infection in Egypt and Indonesia and, at the time of publication, the World Health Organization reported that the number of outbreaks in poultry was expected to increase, although they were, at the time, within the expected range. All quite disappointing news.

The importance of disease control really cannot be underestimated, be it viewed from a human or a financial perspective. In purely commercial terms, the high input costs currently affecting the industry, and consequently narrow margins, means that every bird has to perform to the maximum. Reduced performance or loss as a result of infection is an option that is ever-less affordable. Putting feed into birds without the expected returns back from each and every one is something that only the most sound and financially efficient can now afford to do. 

In today’s fast-paced world we have grown to expect results and solutions almost instantly, and so progress in human and veterinary medicine can, at times, seem frustratingly slow when compared to other areas. Yet progress is being made in the fight against avian influenza. 

Now for the good news

In the January issue of Poultry International we look at how and why avian influenza is affecting poultry production in Egypt and how a new vaccine is offering protection for the country’s producers. In trials, the vaccine has been found to be active against two strains of avian influenza and if offering new hope at part of control strategies to a sector that has been particularly badly hit by the virus.

Looking to a more distant horizon, news that came out of the UK in December 2012 suggests that another vaccine option may be possible.

The country’s Jenner Institute announced that it had “taken an important step towards a universal vaccine against avian influenza.” 

Dr. Colin Butler, who led the research, said that his team was attempting to protect birds and ultimately people against different subtypes of the virus using just one vaccine and that research suggested that, in principle, a universal vaccine is possible. 

The team used a vaccine based on proteins from the human flu virus, which was effective in initiating an immune response in chickens that would, in theory, protect against multiple strains of influenza. It also reduced the extent to which birds shed live infectious virus. 

According to Dr. Butler, using proteins that are very similar in all flu viruses, and delivering them inside another harmless virus, allows the safe vaccination of fertilized eggs. Chicks can then be given a booster on hatch. The next step in the project will be to investigate how well this strategy would work in preventing the spread of the virus in birds. 

While the Jenner’s work will not offer immediate benefits, it could result in additional control tools becoming available to producers if the vaccine performs as hoped. Given the concern that there has been on working with H5N1 over the last year, particularly where work has involved mammals, from an industry standpoint, the announcement from the institute really should be seen as good news.