Disquieting images of dead cranes, dotting the tranquil waters of an Israeli nature reserve, went viral last Sunday. Over 5,000 are estimated to have been killed by the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu, Reuters reports.
The territory was promptly declared off-limits to visitors, and hundreds of thousands of poultry birds were culled as a precautionary measure. Fearing an egg shortage, authorities looked into easing off import quotas to bring in eggs from abroad.
Israeli Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg, who came to oversee the carnage, termed it “the most serious damage to wildlife in the history of the country.”
Calling the situation “worrisome,” Israeli epidemiologist Hagai Levin explained in an Al Jazeera interview that although the attention of the Israeli government is on COVID-19, “we should not neglect other public health hazards,” and “must tackle avian influenza as well.”
While the risk of spread to humans is low, when it does break out, the impact can be lethal. As of October last year, the World Health Organization had confirmed 863 cases of H5N1 in people, 456 of whom died, around the world since 2003.
What Levin and his colleagues fear is the possibility of one person getting infected by human and avian influenza at the same time, after which there will occur “a genetic assortment, and we’ll have a new virus, which is both pathogenic and easily spread among humans.” He stressed that such a scenario remains a “theoretical possibility” only, but that we “must be very alert in order to prevent it.”
Israel is not alone in its fight to halt the virus’ spread, as several European countries are—and have been for months—engaged in what is expected to be a prolonged war against viruses. In this endeavor, effective vaccines for poultry are likely to be the only real weapon. Such vaccines, it is hoped, will not only protect poultry but also minimize exposure of humans to the virus.
Data from the Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI), Germany’s leading animal-disease center, indicate Europe is grappling with the worst bird-flu outbreak in recorded history. In Europe and Russia, 695 outbreaks in wild birds and 374 in poultry have been reported between the beginning of October and December 29th.
In early November, faced by outbreaks near its borders, the French government ordered preventive measures. Since then it has seen a southwestward expansion of the virus into its duck-breeding region. Their latest reporting is of a contaminated turkey population. Consequently, this past month, the country has culled 600,000 poultry birds.
To France’s north, in early December, bird flu was diagnosed at a parent stock farm housing 38,000 animals in Weelde, Belgium, near the Dutch border. A company with 26,000 broiler chicks in Alveringem, near the French border, was also infected. At both locations, all animals were culled for safety reasons.
Great Britain, although an island, was just as vulnerable to migratory birds coming in and out. In early December last year, its farming and environment minister George Eustice told Parliament that “this year we are seeing the largest-ever outbreak of avian influenza in the UK,” adding that there had been 36 confirmed outbreaks thus far.
Additional cases have also been detected in mammals, such as foxes in the Netherlands and Finland, gray seals in Sweden, and otters in Finland.
Earlier in November last year the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) called for alertness, urging that “during the high-risk period of this disease, October to April, countries need to scale up surveillance efforts, implement strict biosecurity measures and ensure a timely reporting of outbreaks to curb its spread.”