Avian influenza is raging in Europe this year with a special force and at an unusual time. In fact, the season is yet to come. Is it particularly bad now? Where does the virus come from anyway?
Greifswald (dpa) – The European Union Health Authority (ECDC) recently spoke of the worst bird flu epidemic in Europe. For the first time, there’s been a widespread outbreak all summer – so what next?
Is there a particularly strong winter wave?
According to Tim Harder, this is hard to predict. At least there is a risk of another wave, says the head of the National Avian Flu Reference Laboratory at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI) near Greifswald. The migration of birds has begun and is approaching its peak.
“Animals of different geographic origins and species now congregate in a small space at this time. This is of course a perfect opportunity for the virus to find other hosts.” There is a fear “that susceptible wild birds flying with us now will encounter a virus that is already circulating here in the ecosystem.”
When is bird flu season usually in Europe?
According to Harder, bird flu has been rampant in recent years, especially between October and April, due to bird migration. In 2021 cases first appeared in the summer, mainly in northern Europe. However, not quite as much as it was in 2022. “This summer, the concept has been almost completely flipped.”
What birds have died in the last few months and where?
According to the expert, seabirds that breed in colonies have recently been infected: terns and gannets in the North Sea and cormorants in the Baltic Sea. To the north, for example on the coasts of Scotland, Norway and the Faroe Islands to Iceland and Spitsbergen, gull species were also particularly affected. For the North Sea alone, Harder assumes that tens of thousands of wild birds have fallen victim to the virus.
How has the epidemic affected poultry farms?
In poultry, there was a widespread outbreak in turkey farms in northern Italy in early summer, Harder says. Duck farming was particularly affected in France. On the other hand, it is unusual for Spain and Portugal to be affected this time. There have also been several outbreaks across the poultry sectors in the UK this time. According to the ECDC, 48 million animals were culled on farms in Europe during the 2021/2022 bird flu season.
There have been sporadic outbreaks in Germany during the summer. The chickens were mostly affected, Harder says. “The positions of laying hens were usually.” But geese and turkey farms were also affected in this country.
How dangerous are companies in this country?
According to the FLI risk assessment from the beginning of July, the input risks from coastal holdings are high and low. However, according to Harder, there are indications that the infection has spread from the coasts, where it occurred mainly during the summer, to the whole of Germany again.
Past seasonal epidemics in winter could have spread throughout Germany. He anticipates increased risks for offshore companies and a similar update to the risk assessment.
Are stocks or even species endangered in Germany?
Risk is seen at least for stocks. In this context, Martin Römmler, a bird protection consultant for the German Confederation for the Conservation of Nature (Nabu), referred to the northern janet, which breeds only in Helgoland in Germany. The colony was severely affected. If he had disappeared, this species would have become extinct in Germany.
Harder cares for species that get older but produce relatively few young per litter. It’s hard to replace the losses here. He also thinks of birds of prey that can become infected by eating infected animals.
Why is the latest epidemic so tragic?
According to Harder, this has not yet been clarified. There are many attempts at interpretation. It starts with climate change and changes in the behavior of wild birds.” The sheer amount of virus circulating was also mentioned. Viruses that circulated during the summer are sometimes assumed to be more fit. “But there is no really strong evidence for any of these assumptions.”
Are one or more variables being traded and can new ones appear?
Harder says you see a relatively uniform virus spreading across Europe. This prevailed in advance. “We’ve already seen the huge variation in the different virus strains in the 20/21 season.” In theory, new variants could also be introduced with the migration of birds.
Traditionally, such intrusions from the Eurasia region, such as Russia and Siberia, have been the cause of bird flu waves. However, there is relatively little data on what happened in Russia over the summer. “We don’t know if the birds will bring anything new.”
What about the danger to humans?
In the past, according to Harder, there were also deaths among people during epidemics, especially in Southeast Asia or Egypt. However, the ECDC recently assessed the risk to the population as low. According to Harder, recent infections in humans have been absolute exceptions and have remained without serious illness.
The risk could increase if the virus mutates. Viruses are relatively flexible genetically and mutations are common. Cases of mammals believed to have died of bird flu after eating infected birds have also been seen across Europe. It is difficult to call them otters, foxes, fish, but also marine mammals such as porpoises or seals. These sporadic cases indicated the importance of protection and caution when close contact, such as collecting birds, is involved.
How did the virus spread in the past?
Harder explains that the introduction of the bird flu virus, which is still rampant today, was first detected in 1996 in a flock of geese in southern China. The virus persisted in Southeast Asia and repeatedly spread to wild animals. There was a first major outbreak in 2003 in wild birds in northern China and Mongolia.
In Germany, in February 2006, the first evidence of a swan was found. In 2014, another heavy wave spread westward through Russia to Europe and Africa and east for the first time through the Bering Strait to North America. Bird flu has hit Germany relatively regularly since 2016.
Can we talk about a pandemic?
Yes, regarding wild birds, Harder is talking about a pandemic. As in 2014, the virus is currently spreading in North America. It is likely that wild birds carried them there over Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the fall of 2021.
It has spread west to the Pacific Ocean and south to Florida. With the current bird migration in North America, there is concern that the virus will also reach Central and South America. This would be “the next wall the virus can break through,” Harder says.
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