Over 500 million birds have died from avian influenza since 2005. The deadly bird disease has devastating consequences on the health of domestic and wild birds, as well as on biodiversity and livelihoods. Lately, the global spread of avian influenza has raised growing preoccupation with an unprecedented number of outbreaks reaching new geographical regions, unusual die-offs in wild birds, as well as an increasing number of cases in mammals. Despite countries’ efforts to implement surveillance as well as strict prevention and control measures—such as movement control, enhanced biosecurity, and stamping-out—avian influenza continues to spark concern among the international community.
Towards a paradigm shift in current avian influenza prevention and control measures?
The extent and severity of the situation requires the assessment of existing strategies to contain the disease and raises multiple questions. What are the gaps in current disease control strategies? How can they be better tailored to different contexts and settings? Do we need to rethink about the way we rear some poultry species? How can we ensure an early detection of outbreaks? Which complementary control options would be needed at country and regional level? Would the wider use of vaccination in birds be a sustainable solution? How can poultry and poultry products trade take place safely in the presence of vaccination? How to best optimise resources allocation?
To address the strategic questions and challenges that impede countries to progress towards the global control of the disease, WOAH will hold its first ever Animal Health Forum dedicated to discuss the topic on 22-23 May, in the framework of the 90th General Session. The Forum will introduce the Technical Item as a common thread and will provide one-of-a-kind chance to take stock of past and current strategies and explore other risk management options, more adapted to the current evolving situation. It will also be a unique opportunity to agree on suitable, science-based alternatives for disease surveillance and control, that can reduce the impact of the disease.
New concerns arise as the disease evolves
These past years, an unprecedented and broader range of virus strains has emerged, leading to further evolution of the viruses and thus creating an epidemiologically challenging landscape. Historically, the most severe form of the disease in poultry, high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI), used to mostly spread from farm to farm, while its low pathogenicity avian influenza (LPAI) used to mainly circulate among wild birds, often remaining asymptomatic in these bird populations. Nowadays, we observe a persistent threat of HPAI encroaching into wild birds, which can carry the disease viruses over long distances and across country borders. Avian influenza has therefore spread rapidly to new regions, in particular in Central and South America where the disease had not been detected for 20 years. In this region, 10 countries reported the disease to WOAH. Whereas, at global level, 74 countries and territories have notified avian influenza outbreaks since October 2021; this wide geographical spread has no previous historical context.
Beyond the increased number of cases identified in poultry and wild birds in recent years, avian influenza is now being reported in wild and captive mammals. Recent cases in otters, foxes and mink have sparked animal and public health concerns pertaining to the risk of viruses becoming more adapted to mammals and what this means to humans.
Sporadic, but severe human cases have also occurred. Although transmission from birds to humans is rare and results from repeated exposure to infected birds, the risk of a pandemic remains.
Building an effective common response
Avian influenza is a serious threat to global health, livelihoods, food security, and biodiversity. While there have been significant efforts to prevent and control its spread, there is still much work to be done. The change of epidemiology of the disease these past two years has undermined the use of stamping-out as a main control measure. As we are looking for more sustainable production practices, we must explore collectively alternative methods of disease control, to prevent and mitigate the disease, and consequently, avoid destroying so many animals when food security is becoming a critical issue for many.
These strategic challenges will be extensively discussed during the upcoming Animal Health Forum on avian influenza. In particular, the topics of surveillance, disease control strategies, ways to ensure safe and fair international trade of poultry and poultry products and regional and global coordination will be debated.
These important discussions will result in the development of international recommendations and will provide a solid basis for the rehaul of the WOAH/FAO global strategy on high pathogenicity avian influenza developed under the umbrella of the GF-TADs.
We need to ensure that countries can respond to this major health threat under a common framework and that their governments are ready to mobilise sufficient resources to tackle avian influenza. Taking appropriate action will be critical to ensure, a safer, healthier future for everyone.
To follow the discussions, connect to our Animal Health forum:
Monday 22 May
- 9:00 a.m. – Session 1 – Avian influenza intelligence: Surveillance and monitoring for early detection and prevention
- 2:30 p.m. – Session 2 – Response: Disease control strategies for early response and business continuity. The role of vaccination
- 3:30 p.m. – Session 3 – Resilience: International standards to facilitate safe international trade
Tuesday 23 May
- 9:00 a.m. – Session 4 – Global coordinated strategy for the progressive control of avian influenza