UK’s chief vet talks bird flu control, trade impact and risks

UK chief vet Nigel Gibbens was the star speaker at the NFU’s poultry breakout session at the recent annual conference. Jake Davies summarises his views on avian influenza (AI):

Nigel Gibbens

Nigel Gibbens.

See also: East Yorkshire bird flu case now closed, says Defra

On farmer awareness

  • Farmers should try to spot AI early.
  • If you’ve got a low-pathogenic strain and it spreads through your flocks, you’re going to have a low-grade disease problem costing you money. If it mutates into high-pathogenic, then you’ve got a big problem. And if it spreads, you’ve got a really big problem.
  • Farmers should use the government’s testing for exclusion scheme, which allows private samples to be analysed.

On control methods

  • A policy of “stamping out” AI outbreaks is a simple strategy, but one that can be difficult to implement.
  • The disease is constantly present in wild birds, and so the risk of infecting a commercial flock is constant, however low.
  • The reason low-pathogenic AI is notifiable is because it can mutate into high-pathogenic. If it didn’t, it would simply be a disease of production.

On the media

  • Perception is really important. The media very rapidly goes off these sorts of stories, provided we are successful and the story we’ve got to tell is a good solid one.
  • Of course the point of depopulation is never pretty. We can only do our best to do it in as professional way as possible.

On trade 

  • The government lobbies for access to as many markets as possible in the event of an outbreak. But the UK is not officially AI-free until three months after secondary disinfection of any site.
  • If a country continues to ban imports without an evidence base, it’s probably because that country might not need our product that much.

On government capacity

  • The Animal and Plant Health Agency has changed over time. It is in fewer regions and has lost staff, though not that many vets. That said, nearly all of them were deployed in the recent AI outbreak.
  • If we had several outbreaks in a similar area we would just absorb it. But if there were multiple outbreak centres, that starts to get more challenging. What becomes really important then is understanding where the biggest risks lie and focusing people on the right things.
  • There are also contracts with private vets, and if it got really big, we can call on vets from Europe and across the world.

On the time it takes to cull birds

  • We’re limited with our resources to cull very high numbers of birds. There’s a challenge.
  • But how much capacity can you afford to have standing idle?
  • The other thing we have to be aware of is making sure people are safe. There is an occupational health risk and that takes primacy over everything else.