Three years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, changing our lives overnight. At this time, the WHO Director General stated that he was “deeply concerned by the alarming levels of inaction”.
So, have these life-altering three years taught us anything, or is our idea of pandemic prevention still inadequate?
Bird flu: a looming pandemic
Following on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now experiencing the largest ever avian influenza outbreak worldwide, which has, so far, led to the death of 97 million birds globally.
There are many different strains of avian influenza, the majority of which cause very few signs of disease in infected birds. However, the current outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), can cause severe disease and high mortality in birds, spreading through saliva, nasal secretions or droppings.
Originating in an intensive poultry farm in China in 1996, it spread to migratory bird populations. This current variant has spread faster and further than any before, dealing huge blows to the poultry industry and devastating wild bird populations in Europe and the Americas.
Is it just birds at risk?
Worryingly, health officials have detected cases of avian influenza making the jump from birds to mammals, with species such as foxes, otters, seals and dolphins becoming infected. In October 2022, over 50,000 mink were culled on a Spanish fur farm after catching avian influenza. When looking at virus samples from four of these infected mink, scientists found several changes compared to the original viral sample from birds. One worrying change could help H5N1 replicate better in mammalian tissues.
Humans have also caught the virus, though fewer than 10 cases of the current strain of avian influenza in humans have been reported globally.
So, what's the answer?
Avian influenza started in factory farms. These intensive systems force thousands of birds to live in cramped, unhygienic conditions, creating the perfect breeding ground for viruses to spread and adapt.
- Fewer animals farmed
- Shifting from industrial facilities to small-scale farming with high animal welfare
- Reducing the number and density of intensive farms, thereby avoiding transmission between facilities
- No poultry farms near wetlands or resting areas for migratory birds
Avian influenza has caused serious welfare issues, with all birdkeepers legally required to keep their birds indoors and follow stringent biosecurity measures in the UK. Eggs and meat can no longer be classed as free-range due to birds being inside for more than 16 consecutive weeks.
To prevent future outbreaks, millions more birds being culled and wild bird populations decimated, we must shift from our industrial farming style to a smaller-scale approach and mitigate the risk of more adaptable variants emerging.