The outbreak of avian influenza (‘bird flu’) in northern Europe this spring and summer has made headlines. It has led to the closure of poultry farms in the UK and elsewhere and has resulted in the death of thousands of seabirds in their nesting colonies.
Bird flu is now in the Iberian Peninsula, largely as a result of the movement of migratory birds that fly south for the winter. Bird flu has affected seabirds in particular, including species that frequent our shores at this time of year, such as gannets and razorbills.
Over the past week or so, a number of dead seabirds have appeared on our coastline, and while bird flu has not yet definitely been identified, it remains very possible that this was the cause.
The Director of Public Health, Dr Helen Carter has commented, ‘Avian influenza is a common illness in birds. I assess the health risk, at this time, to the public to be very low. The World Health Organisation have confirmed that the current avian influenza outbreak is being caused by a H9N2 influenza strain. We currently are experiencing an early increase in human seasonal flu cases with a H1N1 influenza strain. The risk is that someone who is infected with a human strain of seasonal flu could become infected at the same time with the avian flu strain. This mixing of viruses can cause a new flu strain to form that results in a more severe illness. This is why I am working closely with the Environment Agency and we are adopting a pre-cautionary approach. We are strongly advising the public not to touch dead birds but to call the Environment Protection and Research Unit.’
The advice from the Department of the Environment is that dead or sick seabirds (or any birds) should not be touched but should be reported to the Department’s Environmental Protection and Research Unit (EPRU) on telephone 58009620. The birds will then be collected for examination.
At the same time, it will become necessary to take precautions to humanely decrease the populations of feral birds, such as pigeons and chickens, that come into close contact with and are fed by the public.