There is a not-so-new kid back on the block in Europe and it is, once again causing trouble. For anyone suffering from virus fatigue it might, perhaps, be better to click away now.

Avian influenza is again causing trouble in Europe, killing wild birds and necessitating the culling of commercial poultry flocks. But did it ever really go away?

Fortunately for Europe’s poultry farmers, most of the outbreaks, to date, have been in wild birds. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the last thing that they need in the run up to Christmas, especially after all the other virus upheaval we’ve all seen this year.

In late November, the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) reported that highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreaks had been reported in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden as well as the UK. Since that announcement Croatia, Poland and can be added to the list.

Most of the HPAI outbreaks, along with some low pathogenic outbreaks, have been in wild or captive birds, but outbreaks on commercial farms have also occurred. As we all know, prevention is better than cure, and a quick scan of headlines reveals that hundreds of thousands of birds have already been culled in an attempt to stop the virus spreading. The disruption and losses that come from controlling disease outbreaks are all too familiar to all of us now.  

EFSA has also warned that the risk of avian influenza moving into previously unaffected European countries is high.

No human cases have been detected in Europe’s new outbreaks and the risks of transmission remains low, and no adaptations to mammals have been detected. Nevertheless, the evolution of the viruses in circulation needs to be closely monitored to assess ongoing risk, the European authorities warn.

Waiting in the wings

Avian influenza’s return to Europe is perhaps not a complete surprise. Russia and Kazakhstan experienced HPAI outbreaks during the summer, leading EFSA to warn of risks once birds started to migrate. Additionally, the agency also noted that HPAI was present in Bulgaria and Hungary during the European summer months. In these two countries, rather than a new incursion, what was found was virus persisting from the last outbreak.

With Christmas coming it should be the case that the goose -  or turkey, or whatever poultry you may choose for your celebrations – should be getting fat. With increased biosecurity and monitoring, hopefully it still will be.

Experience has taught us, or it least it should have, that while a virus is circulating somewhere in the world, you can never really be completely free from it or the harm it could cause. While often said, diseases, and for that matter migratory birds, recognize no borders.