How can the EU strengthen its animal health defenses to combat bird flu? 

Last year saw an unprecedented bird flu outbreak in Europe, so EU experts have warned that the bloc must take action to strengthen its defenses in case there’s another surge in cases. 

The last outbreak resulted in the culling of 50 million birds across 37 countries, marking the worst epidemic the continent has experienced. Avian flu primarily originates in wild birds but poses a severe threat to domestic flocks that come into contact with infected animals.

As the autumn migratory season commences, the risk of disease continues to spread, so farmers and conservationists are eager to explore all available options to avert similar losses.

Preventative measures 

Amid Europe’s preparations for the upcoming avian flu season, it’s imperative to provide farmers with a comprehensive suite of veterinary tools and services to shield animals and minimize losses. This includes addressing trade policies related to vaccination. 

However, a challenge arises from the difficulty in distinguishing between immunity and infection in vaccinated birds, making many countries hesitant to import their meat.

There have been some reports recently about the potential to genetically engineer chickens with resistance to the disease, which could provide some protection. However, this is still in the early stages and, even if it works, there would still be infections. This further highlights the need for other preventative measures. 

Varied approaches

The approach different countries are taking has been varied.  France has taken an initial step toward standardizing poultry vaccination against avian flu by vaccinating ducks, yet this move triggered trade restrictions from countries like the US, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. 

This shows the delicate balance between animal health and welfare and agri-food trade. Supporting research endeavors to develop Differentiating Infected from Vaccinated Animals (DIVA) vaccines provides hope for resolving this trade-off.

Meanwhile, it is crucial to support farmers who cannot or choose not to vaccinate their birds in adopting measures that protect poultry and reduce the risk of disease transmission. 

This includes promoting biosecurity and hygiene measures to prevent contact between chickens and wild birds that may carry the virus. Farmers should be encouraged to house their flocks in secure barns, particularly in high-risk areas, while also ensuring that wild birds cannot contaminate feed or water supplies.

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