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Preventing and Managing Avian Influenza

To all but the most informed of the public, the threat of H5N1 has passed … avian flu was an event of more than a decade ago – a catastrophic one – but one safely confined to the history books. 

Sadly, we know that mutated forms of avian influenza remains a fluid and major threat to people across the world. The outbreak of H7N9 in China is only too recent, and it follows similar outbreaks of avian flu in the US in 2015 and in Europe the following year.

So great is the risk that René A. Carlson, DVM, President of the World Veterinary Association, told us, in an interview with HealthforAnimals, that avian flu must be the number one priority for the WHO and other global health organisations. 

She revealed that: “Avian influenza, in particular, is a focus point. The fact that Avian Influenza is so prone to mutation, coupled with the considerable demand for poultry worldwide and wild bird migration, means that the risk of spill over to humans is a much greater threat and that is being closely watched. 

“The poultry market is now a massive global industry, with birds farmed for food consumption across the world. This becomes an issue when we look at how birds are being raised and produced, particularly in many Asian and rural, developing markets where the close proximity between birds and human means there is a greater chance of disease spreading between birds and then mutating to a human form.”

Deadly strains so far have largely been caught by poultry workers, but a number of factors are conspiring to make avian flu such a grave threat. The migratory patterns of wild birds are clearly no respecters of international borders, and we’ve seen a rise in demand for poultry from global markets, which means the risk of human mutation is high. 

Meanwhile, the gap in safety controls in the developed and developing farming markets heightens the risk of the spread, and in many rural farming communities, people have much more physical contact with the birds, leaving them exposed. 

So what can we do? Well, innovation is a good start, and researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in California have created their own mutations of the virus in a lab to trace their behaviour and be one step ahead of their non-lab counterparts. 

At a state level, the Chinese Government is working with the WHO in strengthening local measures on management of live poultry markets and transportation within regions, along with building virology surveillance and awareness. 

These measures are welcome, but collaboration needs to take place at a supra-national level if we are to actively prevent another catastrophic outbreak. We need stronger collaboration between the human and animal health sectors – a relationship that exists before a crisis, and not one that’s hastily formed in its wake. 

Similarly, veterinarians and the animal health sector must be consulted by policymakers to plan and mitigate against outbreaks, rather than on how we deal with it after the event. 

To me, the pervasive and ever-changing threat of avian flu is representative of our wider vulnerability to zoonotic disease. Similarly, in fostering stronger working relationships across governments, sectors and disciplines, an approach to tackling the threat avian flu must be a model for the prevention of all zoonotic disease.