Millions of sick and healthy animals killed after bird flu outbreaks

Hundreds of chickens close to each other in a shed with no room to move
Chickens have to stay inside a chicken shed for at least a month in the Netherlands, Wijk en Aalburg, Netherlands on October 26, 2021, credit: Utrecht Robin/Abaca via Reuters Connect

Almost 43 million birds, sick and healthy, have been killed by governments this year after avian influenza outbreaks, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Governments continue to order culls of farm and wild birds as the number of bird flu outbreaks keeps rising worldwide.

In 2020, there were 1617 bird flu outbreaks worldwide, with governments killing 24.5 million farm and wild birds. In the first ten months of 2021, OIE reported 2947 outbreaks, and so far, 42.7 million animals have been killed.

The number of killed birds is probably higher as “the losses are calculated based on the sum of dead and culled animals in the infected farm or backyard premises notified within the outbreaks,” a spokesperson for OIE told The Animal Reader.

“The OIE does not collect quantitative information on additional control measures applied in response to the outbreaks,” the spokesperson said, meaning the animals who are killed in a zone around an outbreak are not counted.

When avian influenza is detected on animal farms or in the wild, the only response governments have is to kill all animals, sick or healthy, in the infected area and usually also in a zone around the area. The bodies of the dead birds are either buried, burnt or discarded in another way.

And since outbreaks are rising rapidly in Europe, Asia and Africa, governments will kill more chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and other birds.

Bird flu outbreaks in Europe
Germany reported an outbreak of bird flu at a small farm, authorities said on Tuesday. Around 17 chickens, 28 ducks and two geese were involved, the German government said.

On Monday, Poland reported multiple outbreaks of avian influenza at farms, with in total nearly 650,000 birds, which will probably all be killed. Poland is the European Union’s largest bird meat producer. Outbreaks were reported at four fattening turkey farms, a chicken broiler farm and a geese farm, Polish authorities told OIE.

On Friday, the French government put the entire country on high alert for bird flu, extending a requirement to keep all animals indoors. France culled 3 million birds last winter in its duck-breeding region after an avian influenza outbreak.

Last month, Dutch authorities also ordered farms to keep all their chickens, ducks and other birds inside after a bird flu outbreak at a farm. This means the animals will not see daylight for at least a month. On Thursday, the Netherlands reported a new outbreak of bird flu at a duck farm in the central province of Flevoland. The Dutch agriculture ministry said that to limit the spread of the disease, about 10,000 animals, sick and healthy, will be killed.

Last week, Britain declared a nationwide Avian Influenza Prevention Zone, ordering farms and bird keepers to toughen biosecurity measures after bird flu had been reported at a small farm in Warwickshire. The government killed all animals in the affected area.

Denmark reported an outbreak of bird flu at a turkey farm last week with 27,000 animals in the central part of the country.

Human bird flu infections
Avian influenza usually only affects birds, but there’s a rise in human cases, especially in China, where more than 20 cases of humans infected with bird flu were reported. In 2020, there were only five cases.

Experts are concerned about the rise in numbers and think the strain might have changed, and could be more infectious to people.

As chicken, turkey, duck, and geese farms have grown immensely in recent years, experts say the virus could have evolved and changed into one that spreads easily between people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said further investigation was “urgently” required to understand the risk and the increase in spillover to people.

Animal rights organizations have long asked to reconsider the bird farming industry to prevent emerging diseases and for animal welfare reasons.

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