Avian Influenza shows us we must support our national animal disease control infrastructure
The United Kingdom is currently experiencing our worst ever avian influenza outbreak to date.
Throughout the world, wild and kept bird populations have been impacted significantly, with millions of domestic and wild birds dying from the disease and millions of domestic birds having to be culled as part of disease control protocols.
The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain has already had a major impact on agri-food businesses, rural communities, and consumers. I would first like to pay tribute to the farmers, producers, vets, officials, and everyone else in the front line of this harrowing outbreak. As the only veterinary surgeon in the Commons, my political journey started some 22 years ago when I supervised some of the tragic mass culls of the foot and mouth crisis, and I am acutely aware of the impact these animal disease outbreaks can have on our communities.
It is hard not to dwell on the harrowing mental health impact these outbreaks have on communities
Recently, the EFRA Committee held an urgent session on avian influenza. One area we need to focus on is improving compensation schemes, so bird keepers are reimbursed earlier during culls. Currently, farmers can experience a delay between declaring an outbreak and culls beginning, risking more birds becoming infected and dying and fewer healthy birds remaining to allow the farmer to receive reimbursement. Moreover, we need to learn from other countries that are looking to allow farmers to retain their free-range status despite moving birds inside due to important veterinary-instigated statutory housing orders. Currently eggs from UK birds housed for more than 16-weeks cannot be packaged as free-range, whereas European Union countries are looking to extend free-range status if the state vets have ordered the birds to be housed. We need to make sure our farmers can remain competitive.
The human impact too cannot be overlooked. Livelihoods being upended, it is hard not to dwell on the harrowing mental health impact these outbreaks have on communities. All too often rural folk must contend with a unique combination of challenges to mental health, with sometimes restricted access to centralised public services. Again, the EFRA Committee is looking at this with our inquiry on rural mental health that I triggered.
This outbreak also brings into sharp relief issues surrounding animal disease control infrastructure. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), responsible for animal disease surveillance and control, was the subject of alarming reports last year from the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Public Accounts Committee (which I was a guest on last year when they looked at the APHA situation), which pointed to the significant threat posed by the need for a radical redevelopment of the organisation’s headquarters in Weybridge. This site is pivotal to the UK’s animal disease defence and biosecurity and it is vital that the government funds in full the £2.8bn needed to maintain and future-proof the site. APHA’s work goes under the radar until disaster strikes and does not get credit for the critical role it plays, but we must redevelop the Weybridge site or face the consequences.
Fortunately, the UK Health Security Agency describes the risk from avian influenza to public health as being low and the Food Standards Agency says it does not pose a food safety risk to consumers. But, alongside bolstering our own animal disease infrastructure, we must press forward with our global partners to develop an effective vaccine for the current strain. The two vaccines authorised in this country are not suitable for this strain. It is vital therefore that we develop a suitable vaccine and a means of differentiating between infected and vaccinated birds (DIVA test).
I am optimistic that, again as with Covid-19, political will can provide solutions quickly and effectively. There has been some spill-over of avian influenza into mammals like minks, otters, foxes and sea lions – and indeed humans. Fortunately, at this stage there is no sign of sustained transmission between mammals, but that is always the fear that if the virus evolves it will be able to spread in this fashion.
Viruses constantly evolve, so monitoring and preparedness is key. We need take this opportunity to bolster our animal disease control infrastructure, improve support for those affected and protect future generations.
Neil Hudson, Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border.
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