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‘Very concerned’: UK chief vet confirms two more bird flu outbreaks

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Baker West/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Richard Baker West/Alamy

The UK’s chief vet has expressed alarm at an unprecedented spread of avian flu that has forced 500,000 captive birds to be culled so far this winter.

Christine Middlemiss said she was “very concerned about what’s happening” as the disease continues to hit more poultry farms and bird sanctuaries.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme after confirming two more outbreaks overnight, she said: “We now have a total of 40 infected premises in the UK – that’s a really high number for the time of year for anything we’ve experienced before.” By comparison, there were 26 outbreaks last winter.

Middlemiss confirmed every bird where an outbreak has been confirmed would be killed. She said: “All the birds on the premises have to be culled, because of the ongoing risk of infection that they pose. The total number is something like half a million will now have been culled.”

Middlemiss said food supplies would not be hit. “That sounds a huge number, and for those keepers affected it is really devastating, but it’s a relatively very small number in terms of egg supply, meat, chicken and so on.”

The disease is spread by migratory wild birds from Europe, where high infections levels are also being recorded.

Middlemiss said: “It used to be that we would have a reasonable sized outbreak and then have two or three quiet years. But that’s not happening now. We’re seeing this across the whole of Europe. We need to understand better why we’re getting these ongoing infections every year.”

Asked if the disease was still spreading, Middlemiss said: “We’re continuing to get the new detections. I confirmed another two last night and that’s the rate we’ve been going at for the last week or so. We’re seeing this as a huge pressure of infection from our wild birds.”

An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared across the UK at the start of November, requiring strict biosecurity measures and all bird to be kept indoors.

Middlemiss said almost 300 wild birds had been found with the disease at more than 80 locations. There was “a lot of virus out there”, she said. The risk to human health is low but infected birds should not be touched.

Middlemiss also urged people with garden bird feeders to “practice routine hygiene precautions” including proper handwashing.

She added: “If you keep chickens and you want to feed wild birds, you need to make sure that everything is completely scrupulously clean and absolutely separate so that you don’t take infection into your own birds and make them sick.”

Asked if the climate crisis was to blame for the increased infection, Middlemiss said: “We don’t know specifically, but it’s certainly one of the thoughts that our experts are having. The birds migrate to the north of Russia over the summer and mix with other birds on other global flight pathways and exchange the viruses. So it’s quite plausible that with climate change and change in pathways that different mixing is going on.”

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