An updated and revised strategy to screen wild birds for the presence of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza was announced today. The strategy has been developed by Defra in partnership with the devolved administrations.
Defra's targeted surveillance strategy will involve sampling for the disease in areas which have higher numbers of migrating waterfowl and larger poultry populations.
The programme, being introduced in time for the autumn migration of water birds from more northerly latitudes, will have three main elements:
· Testing of live birds (which are then released);
· Testing shot birds (shot as part of normal legal wild fowling activities); and
· Testing certain species of dead wild birds found in designated areas.
Species thought to be a greater risk for introducing avian flu, in particular ducks, geese, swans, gulls and waders, will be targeted.
Screening for the virus will take place in designated surveillance areas where a sample of reported dead birds will be collected and tested. Unusually high numbers of dead birds will continue to be investigated throughout the UK as in previous years. This is a separate survey to ascertain the causes of these deaths.
The survey is a strategic targeted survey and not all birds will be collected. The likelihood of a wild bird that is found dead being infected with avian influenza is very small. Dead wild birds are screened because they are a convenient source for sampling and not because their death is likely to be due to avian influenza.
The strategy has been developed in partnership with experts from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the State Veterinary Service, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, British Trust for Ornithology, the Joint Nature Conservancy Council, British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Veterinary Laboratories Agency and the Medical Research Council. The strategy remains flexible and may change as circumstances develop.
Debby Reynolds, the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer, said: "This new targeted strategy ensures that our operation is as sharp as possible. We are doing most work in areas where there is a greater likelihood of finding virus but we will continue to be vigilant in checking for avian influenza right across the UK.
"The strategy reflects the success we have already had in detecting and isolating cases of the virus and shows that we are flexible enough to concentrate resources wherever they will be most effective. One thing that never changes however is the need for us to work in partnership with poultry farmers, wildlife experts, scientists and the general public to keep the risk to a minimum."
Samples from wild birds collected under the surveillance programme will continue to be tested at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. These samples are collected to provide a continuous snap-shot of the wild bird population and not because they are under particular suspicion of disease.
Annual testing on poultry flocks across the UK to detect any possible infection early will continue.
Full details of the surveillance strategy are available on the Defra website at www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/disease/ai/wildbirds/index.htm. Anyone concerned about avian flu can contact the Defra helpline on 08459 33 55 77.
The contingency plans drawn up by Defra and the State Veterinary Service have now been tested by both a simulated outbreak exercise and by real occurrences of avian flu earlier this year. Both have helped to improve the response ability at national and local level.
An assessment of the exercise, Operation Hawthorn, is available at http://defraweb/animalh/diseases/control/contingency/hawthorn/index.htm#report
· The UK's first survey for avian influenza in wild birds began last October after the European Union advised all member states to enhance surveillance of wild birds after the virus gradually spread west.
· The survey has been running since October. However there are seasonal variations in the number of water bird migrants residing in the UK, this is reflected in the number of submissions. Sampling for shot birds stops outside the shooting season (Feb-Sept).
· Thousands of samples have been tested but there has so far only been one case of highly pathogenic H5N1 detected in a sample from a dead swan found at Cellardyke in Scotland in April.
· It is normal for a proportion of wild birds to carry low pathogenic avian influenza viruses so it would not be unusual to detect some LPAI viruses over the course of the survey. These are normally of little significance to human or animal health.
· For more survey details and findings, click on http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/disease/ai/wildbirds/survey.htm.