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Avian influenza: How to spot it and ways to prevent it

laying hen in profile

With H5N8 avian influenza (and an unrelated H5N2 case) confirmed in the UK, it’s a critical time to review the signs and symptoms that a flock may have the virus, and ways to keep it out of poultry farms.

Bird flu is a notifiable animal disease, meaning that failing to report it is an offence. If bird flu is suspected in poultry, it must be reported immediately by calling:

  • The Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301
  • In Wales, contact 0300 303 8268.
  • In Scotland, contact your local Field Services Office.

Vets can test to exclude the virus – it’s far better to act early and with precaution, than to allow a potential infection to spread further than necessary.

Clinical signs of highly pathogenic avian influenza

The clinical signs can vary quite widely, according to poultry vet Daniel Parker.

For example, waterfowl tend to be more resilient to clinical signs, whereas turkeys are much more susceptible.

Very high mortality is usually the sign that alerts producers to the disease.

But other signs can include

  • Birds losing appetite
  • Depressed, hunched up birds.
  • Cyanosis – reddening of legs or wattles and comb
  • Swollen heads and wattles
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Diarrhoea
  • Egg colour may be affected
  • Egg production will almost certainly drop
  • Ataxia or other nervous signs

Biosecurity

“There is no other preventative strategy for avian influenza than biosecurity,” Mr Parker says. “There’s a real positive aspect to good biosecurity, in that it prevents a lot of other diseases entering your flock.”

There are many aspects to good biosecurity, but two key areas when considering avian influenza are people and wild birds, he explains.

Limiting visitors to the site is essential, as is keeping a record of who has been on-farm.

That record should include the:

  • Date and time of the visit
  • Name
  • Phone number
  • Vehicle registration number and whether wheels have been washed
  • The last poultry farm they visited and the next one they are likely to visit
  • Whether they have been in the live bird area

In the event of an outbreak, these records are a critical way to track whether the disease has spread further.

Farmers and other essential visitors should have access to protective clothing, foot dips and boot changes and handwashing and hand sanitisers

Vehicles and equipment should be sanitised regularly.

And measures should be taken to minimise potential contact with wild birds that include:

  • Removing any pooled water or puddles on free-range farms
  • Minimising wild birds’ access to poultry barns by blocking off any holes
  • Ensuring any spilt feed is promptly cleaned up.

This article is based on a presentation made by Danial Parker at a recent UK Poultry Health and Welfare Group live webinar. The full webinar is available on the British Poultry Council’s YouTube account.

Defra also has detailed guidance for commercial poultry producers that can be found on its website.