Avian flu: an unprecedented number of cases this summer in Europe

An unprecedented number of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus detections were reported in wild and domestic birds from June to September in Europe, according to the last report compiled by EFSA, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the EU Reference Laboratory. In previous years, none or only a few cases had been detected during the summer period. The entire 2021-2022 HPAI season therefore generated the largest outbreak observed to date in Europe.

Between 11 June and 9 September 2022, 788 HPAI virus detections were reported in 16 EU/EEA countries and the UK, including 56 in poultry and 22 and 710 in captive birds respectively and wild. The unusual persistence of the virus in wild birds continued throughout the summer and was observed in 15 European countries. The virus has reached seabird breeding colonies on the northern Atlantic coast, causing mass mortality, particularly in Germany, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Heavily infected wild birds also posed a permanent risk of infection to domestic birds. From June to September, the number of outbreaks in domestic birds decreased compared to previous months but was more than five times higher compared to the same period the previous year.

“With cases detected in poultry and wild birds through September, the current outbreak is clearly still ongoing. As the autumn migration begins and the number of wild birds wintering in Europe increases, they are likely to be at higher risk of becoming infected with HPAI than in previous years, due to the persistence of the virus in Europe,” said Guilhem de Seze, head of the department in charge of risk assessment at EFSA.

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EFSA recommends that appropriate and sustainable HPAI mitigation strategies be rapidly implemented, including appropriate biosecurity measures as well as monitoring strategies to enable its early detection. Medium and long-term prevention strategies should also be considered in densely populated areas and in poultry production systems that are highly susceptible to exposition to avian flu.

Unprecedented geographical reach

The current bird flu season has produced the largest outbreak seen so far in Europe, with a total of 2,467 outbreaks in poultry and 47.7 million animals slaughtered in affected establishments. In addition, 187 detections were reported in captive birds and 3,573 HPAI incidents were recorded in wild birds. The geographic scope of this year’s outbreak is unprecedented, with reported cases ranging from the Svalbard Islands in Norway, south to Portugal and as far east as Ukraine, affecting a total of 37 countries on the European continent.

In the fall of 2021, the HPAI A(H5N1) virus also crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, spreading from Europe to North America along migration routes and causing severe outbreak in poultry in several Canadian provinces and US states as well as deaths in wild birds.

Low risk to humans

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which also contributed to the report, concludes that the risk of infection for population general human exposure in the EU/EEA is low, and that it is low to medium for occupationally exposed people. These conclusions, however, present a great deal ofuncertainty due to the wide diversity of avian influenza viruses circulating in bird populations. The risk of transmission to humans via exposure to contaminated poultry products is considered negligible.

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ECDC has also published a technical report entitled “Testing and detection of zoonotic infections of avian influenza in humans in the EU/EEA”, to which EFSA, the EU reference laboratory and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work also contributed.

This news story has been updated to correct the figure about the number of birds culled in affected establishments. The correct figure is 47.7 million birds not 47.5 million birds as stated previously.