Avian flu on the way to endemism among wildlife

A gannet stranded on a beach in Tréguennec (Finistère), September 10, 2022.

“We are in trouble with the bird flu. » In the aisles of Space, the International Livestock Show, held in Rennes from Tuesday 13 to Thursday 15 September, the avian influenza epidemic, which during the summer affected several farms in the far west of France, has been one of the main concerns with the drought and the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

During the round tables and on the stands of the interprofessions, the Technical Institute of Poultry (Itavi) or the National Food Safety Agency (Anses), the breeders press the speakers with questions: the will the epizootic intensify? Will they have to test animals more regularly? Can we count on a vaccine?

Officially, in France, the level of risk is classified as “negligible”. But at the end of the summer, the situation is unprecedented in many respects. On European coasts, new mortality was observed in July-August among seabirds (gulls, gulls, gannets), but also inland, among landbirds such as herons. The analyzes confirmed that these birds were indeed infected with the H5N1 virus.

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Until 2021, it was the winter migrations from the northern hemisphere to the south that transported avian viruses. This time, sedentary species are contaminated and cause infections in farms outside the migration season. Areas hitherto relatively spared, such as Brittany, are now very exposed, with a high risk due to the density of farms.

Wild birds affected

Another particularity: far from being confined to waterfowl, the classic hosts of avian viruses, the H5N1 line circulating this year affects all poultry species – turkeys, broiler chickens, roosters. And the phenomenon knows no borders. In the United States, 45 million poultry have been infected since January, compared to 46 million in Europe (including 19.2 million in France and 13.8 million in Italy). For Maxime Quentin, scientific director of Itavi“with an extremely mobile and adaptable virus, we have gone from an epizootic to a panzootic”, that is, to a global health situation.

“The extent of the findings on the ground is cause for concern. There is no longer any notion of a period at risk or a space at risk, we see threats of the introduction of the virus everywhere in the territory. It’s a game-changer.” says Jean-Luc Guérin, professor at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse and laboratory director of the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae).

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