French and Dutch poultry producers have been given the go-ahead by Brussels to start vaccinating their birds against H5N1 avian flu in a limited and controlled programme.

The decision was taken by veterinary experts on Wednesday (22 February) following two days of intense debate into the pros and cons of vaccination.

“Recent cases of avian flu in wild birds in the EU have compounded the need to explore every possible option to protect our poultry from this virus,” said EU food safety commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

“Targeted vaccination, accompanied by sufficient guarantees, can be an effective tool when coupled with the rigorous preventive measures already in place in the EU.”

Following the decision, France is to start vaccinating up to 900,000 ducks and geese in the Landes, Loire-Atlantique and Vendee departments immediately.

These areas are deemed most at risk from H5N1, and the French maintain that it is impractical to keep these birds indoors.

The Dutch plan applies to hobby farmers and to free-range laying hens throughout the whole country. There are about 2 million hobby birds and 5 million free-range hens.

The vaccination will be on a voluntary basis as an alternative for those farmers who would not be able to house their flocks.

In both cases, great emphasis is being put on rigorous follow up controls, including movement restrictions on vaccinated flocks and strict monitoring to check there is no undetected outbreak of avian flu.

One of the main problems of vaccination – and the reason it took vets so long to approve it – is that it can mask the presence of the H5N1 virus. Birds can still be infected with the disease, even though they may not show any obvious symptoms.