There is no single solution to avian flu. Rather, each country must adopt the appropriate mix of policies and support that best enable poultry farmers to protect both their birds and their livelihoods, writes Roxanne Feller.
Reports of the possibility of breeding chickens genetically resistant to bird flu will come as a welcome boost to European poultry farmers following last year’s unprecedented outbreak.
Some 50 million birds were killed or culled across 37 countries in 2022, in the continent’s worst outbreak.
Avian flu originates from wild birds but affects domestic flocks that come into contact with infected animals.
As the fall migration season begins and the risk of disease spread increases again, farmers and conservationists will be desperate to use all options to avoid similar losses.
Prevention improves protection
But while the prospect of a genetically modified, flu-resistant chicken represents a major breakthrough that would protect animal welfare, food supplies and agricultural livelihoods, the latest development is only the first evidence of concept, which will take years to reach farms.
Additionally, research showed that higher doses of the virus led to large-scale infections in resistant chickens, meaning preventive and protective measures would still be needed.
As Europe prepares for this season’s avian flu outbreak, it remains essential that farmers benefit from a full range of veterinary tools and services to protect animals and minimize losses.
This involves resolving trade policies around vaccination, which can strengthen control measures and help prevent the spread of disease.
However, many countries will not import meat from vaccinated birds due to difficulties in distinguishing between immunity and infection.
Different countries, different solutions
France took the first step towards standardizing the vaccination of poultry against bird flu when authorities began vaccinating ducks earlier this month.
However, this triggered immediate trade restrictions from countries including the United States, Canada, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, heightening sensitivities around the balance between animal health and welfare and agri-food trade.
Supporting research efforts to develop vaccines that distinguish immunized from infected animals, known as Differentiation of Infected from Vaccinated Animals (DIVA) vaccines, offers hope for reaching a compromise.
In the meantime, farmers who do not or cannot vaccinate their poultry should also be helped to adopt measures that protect poultry and reduce the risk of disease spread.
This includes encouraging biosecurity and hygiene measures to keep chickens a safe distance from wild birds that could carry the virus.
Farmers should be supported to house their flocks in stables located in high-risk areas, while ensuring that wild birds cannot contaminate feed or water supplies.
Finally, poultry producers should also be empowered and equipped to work closely with veterinarians and public health authorities.
Not only is this important for maintaining the health of each flock, but it also limits the spread of disease beyond the farm and even beyond the birds.
Diseases know no borders
Monitoring poultry health is essential for the early detection of diseases like avian flu, so that outbreaks can be contained before they develop.
New animal health monitoring technologies can help farmers do so more effectively with artificial intelligence capable of analyzing audio and video recordings to identify signs of disease.
Digital technology also makes it easier for farmers to report cases of bird flu to inform public health responses and warn other producers.
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to bird flu. Rather, each country must adopt the appropriate mix of policies and support that best enables poultry farmers to protect both their birds and their livelihoods.
As the world now knows from the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease knows no borders, meaning preventive and protective health measures are needed everywhere to protect everyone.