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5 lessons learned from the 2021/2022 AI outbreak

An avian influenza outbreak

The following article reflects some of the experiences and lessons learned by biosecurity specialists Livetec Systems, which was closely involved with many commercial avian influenza outbreaks over the 2021/2022 winter season. 

The firm’s technical director, Julian Sparrey, will be speaking at Poultry Network’s Live Conference on 8 September. 

See also: Poultry.Network Live

The 2021/2022 Avian Influenza (AI) season in the UK was undoubtedly the worst on record, resulting in the loss of millions of birds. 

While the outbreak has been devastating, there is an opportunity to reflect, learn, and adapt to minimise the impact next winter and beyond. 

Here are five key lessons farmers can learn from the latest crisis:

1. Reporting is Key

H5N1 is the highly pathogenic strain of AI that has been spreading throughout the 2021/22 season; a version of the disease that exhibited very sudden mortality in certain species such as turkeys. Previous strains, such as last year’s predominately H5N8, typically presented more gradually. 

With initial symptoms of AI often similar to many poultry diseases, it is essential to report concerns as soon as possible to your vet during high-risk periods or when the disease is already identified locally. 

However, if you see sudden high mortality, always report this directly to APHA.

Avian Influenza also has a high mutation rate, with different strains presenting in various ways. Improved education and reporting are essential to ensuring outbreaks are identified rapidly. 

2. Speed Matters

It is clear from this season that the processes for reporting, assessing, and handling outbreaks can be made more efficient. 

In many cases, zones restricting the movement of poultry and poultry products were in place for over 100 days, affecting large areas of the UK. 

This puts additional resource and financial burden on poultry producers. 

A key reason for these extended restriction periods was the time taken to undertake the tracing and surveillance requirements. 

Producers can assist in this regard by keeping clear and complete records of not only visitors but staff and all vehicles entering the farm. 

These should preferably be electronic, as thousands of hours were spent transcribing often illegible and incomplete visitor sheets. 

There is also a case to be made for the official requirement to register flocks with fewer than 50 birds onto the Great Britain Poultry Register. 

To reduce spread, minimise the risk of infection to healthy birds, and lower the overall impact of AI on businesses, farms must keep clear and complete records.

3. Greater Preparation is Needed

One common finding from the 2021/2022 season was that farmers, on the whole, reported feeling unprepared for the severity of the outbreak. 

Many felt that a lack of straightforward information across the sector resulted in them not being clear on what would happen, how they would be affected, or how long it would take to become operational again. 

Many were unsure of what they needed to do and how to do it. 

While there was a push five years ago to promote preparations, this had fallen off many producers’ radar with the many other stresses on the poultry industry.

How we approach disease needs to shift. Discussing disease outbreaks cannot be taboo; it needs to be an everyday topic of conversation, approached openly, and farmers must prepare contingency plans. 

4. CPH Numbers should be Split

During the latest outbreak, one organisation was required to cull 44,000 birds displaying no clinical signs of disease, as the land shared the same County Parish Holding (CPH) number as the adjacent plot of land where a disease outbreak had been identified. 

Farmers must be aware that, in the event of an outbreak, restrictions will automatically be applied to all land under the same CPH number, regardless. 

Where possible, a poultry unit should have an individual CPH number, especially if it is part of a larger mixed farming enterprise. 

These changes can be challenging to implement, especially if there are no hard boundaries around the poultry unit and the system for allocating and verifying CPH numbers must be improved. 

5. Biosecurity Must Be a Constant

Disease outbreaks on-farm can make for a very worrying time. However, a hugely important lesson is that biosecurity can never take a back seat. 

Throughout the 2021/22 season, it was found that best practices were sometimes overlooked due to the pressures of the crisis. For example, responders arrived at sites with no adequate cleaning and disinfection facilities for vehicles at the entrance, no space for parking outside of biosecure areas and no or poor changing facilities for staff and visitors. 

Prevention must be part of every day, and processes must be easy to follow and comply with. 

Biosecurity as ‘additional measures’ on top of standardised processes isn’t enough; risk management must be built into the foundations of every part of the operation. 

Preparing for the 2022/2023 Season

The potential severity of the 2022/2023 season is unknown. But what we do know is that we can learn from the recent crisis and use it to shape strategies for the future. 

Education, speed, transparency, risk, and biosecurity can all be addressed through implementing a thorough and consistent biosecurity plan, contingency plan and following a national outbreak plan. 

These plans bring disease to the forefront, forcing farmers to look candidly at risk, understand individual vulnerabilities, and develop strategies to enhance their resilience during challenging times. We can’t always prevent disease. But we can ensure we’re prepared for it.