AVIAN INFLUENZA

With so much about “bird flu” appearing in the media, it’s difficult to separate the ‘hype’ from the facts, and at Brent Lodge we’re receiving many phone calls from worried members of the public. We don’t want to add to the confusion, but thought it worth repeating a few of the facts already published by DEFRA and the British Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, in answer to the questions that we are most commonly being asked.

What is Avian Influenza, and can I catch it?

Avian Influenza is a disease caused by a virus, of which there are many strains, and it has been established for a long time that evidence of infection can been found in wild (migratory) birds.

There is some evidence, however, that some strains of the virus will cause disease in wild birds and (especially the strain H5N1) will cause severe disease in domesticated poultry. Avian Influenza is primarily a disease of birds, and is caused by influenza viruses closely related to human influenza viruses. Transmission to humans in close contact with poultry or other birds occurs rarely and only with some strains of Avian Influenza. Hence, good hygiene precautions are vital for those working closely with poultry and other birds. The main concerns regarding Avian Influenza are:-

  • The risk of serious losses to the commercial poultry industry, plus the health risk to workers in the industry. (In the UK the majority of poultry are housed in secure environments - it is free-range birds that are potentially at the greatest risk).
  • The chance that the virus could change its nature, i.e. mutate and become pathogenic to humans and be able to pass from human to human.

What are the signs of the disease?

The severity depends upon the strain of virus and the type of bird infected. Birds infected with a highly pathogenic strain of the virus may die suddenly or show a range of clinical signs including respiratory signs, swollen heads, dullness, a drop in egg production, and a loss of appetite. Some birds, especially waterfowl, can be infected with a low pathogenic strain of the virus without showing any signs of disease.

What is being done to see if wild birds in the UK are carrying disease?

An increase in surveillance of wild birds for evidence of avian influenza infection is currently being undertaken. This programme is in three strands.

  • The first – which has been in place for several years now – involves examining bird carcases where there has been an unusual mortality event (“die-off”) and this an on-going activity.
  • The second strand is that samples will be taken from birds caught live by staff at wetlands centres and then released.
  • The final strand is that samples will be taken from birds which are shot as part of existing legal wildfowling activities.

What should I do if I find a large number of dead birds?

In the event of an unusually high number of dead wild birds, the DEFRA Helpline (03459 33 55 77) should be contacted.

Do I need to report single dead birds?

No. For Avian Influenza monitoring DEFRA are looking for incidents of mortality affecting significant numbers of birds at the same time in the same place. A wild bird die-off is characterised by an unusual number of wild bird deaths in one area. The usual number of deaths depends on several things; for example, more deaths will be expected if the bird population is high, food is scarce or if the weather is bad. An unusually high number of deaths may involve several birds of one species, or a larger number of birds from several species.

Is it necessary to report deaths in birds kept in outside aviaries or gamebirds?

You should report cases where a number of birds have died within a short time and there could have been contact with migratory waterbirds. You are strongly advised to do this through your private veterinary surgeon.

Should I report dead birds that look like they’ve been hit by a car or savaged by a wild animal?

Not if it’s clear that that’s the cause of death, or if the carcase is starting to putrefy.

I keep chickens. What do I need to know about Avian Influenza?

We would advise anyone who keeps poultry to refer to the information for poultry keepers on the DEFRA web site at https://www.gov.uk/avian-influenza-bird-flu or to contact the DEFRA helpline on 08459 335577.

Can I get Avian Influenza from handling wild birds?

Avian Influenza is principally an avian disease. Wild birds in this country are not known to be carrying this strain at present, so the risk of being infected with this strain of virus when handling wild birds in this country is currently thought to be very low. However to minimise any risk it is advisable to carry out general hygiene precautions when handling wild birds, such as wearing disposable protective gloves when picking up and handling carcases, and washing hands, nails and forearms thoroughly with soap and water after handling carcases.

Am I at risk from touching dead birds? What should I do if I or my children have touched a dead bird?

Wild birds can carry several diseases that are infectious to people. Although the risk of Avian Influenza may be low, birds carry other respiratory infections. Birds can also carry infections which can cause gastrointestinal infections such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. If dead birds are handled, it is important to wash your hands with soap and water as soon as possible afterwards. Avoid touching your face, and certainly do not eat until you have washed your hands. Clean any soiling on clothing with soap and water.

Do I have to worry about my pets eating or bringing dead birds in?

It is always sensible to prevent pets eating wild bird or other animal carcases, given that there is the possibility that the death could have been caused by poisoning or from a severe bacterial infection, or the carcase could have been deliberately poisoned for use as a bait.

I’ve found a sick or injured bird. Should I still bring it to Brent Lodge?

Yes – please do. We are very concerned that fear of flu will stop people bringing birds to us. We advise people to bring patients to us with minimum delay and minimum handling. Since poultry are most at risk from Avian Influenza, it is important to keep any sick or injured wild birds away from them. Ideally, wear disposable gloves when handling birds, and always wash hands thoroughly afterwards. People bringing birds to Brent Lodge will be given the opportunity to clean their hands with an anti-viral cleanser. We will also burn any boxes that are used to transport birds to us. If you bring us a bird in a re-usable pet carrier, you should thoroughly clean and disinfect the container afterwards.

Where can I find the latest official information?

For continually updated information on Avian Influenza, we advise readers to refer to the DEFRA website at https://www.gov.uk/avian-influenza-bird-flu