In the face of recent outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the poultry sector, European agriculture ministers this week adopted conclusions on a strategic approach for the development of vaccination as a complementary tool for the prevention and control of the disease.

The measures contained in the conclusions are aimed in particular at the poultry sector in the context of the commission describes as the most serious epizootic in recent history in Europe.

In their discussions, ministers underlined the cross-border nature of the animal disease and its ability to spread very rapidly, irrespective of national borders, causing serious socio-economic consequences that hamper agriculture and disrupt trade.

They also recalled the risk that HPAI could pose to human health.

Biosecurity for poultry sector

European ministers underlined the paramount importance of the application of strict biosecurity and other existing HPAI prevention and control measures.

They agreed that vaccination could usefully complement these measures and help reduce the risk of spread among domestic poultry.

They also called for further scientific knowledge, including updated risk assessments, and asked member states and the commission to intensify their efforts to develop vaccination strategies targeted at risk areas, species and farming practices.

Member states were also encouraged to carry out vaccination trials and share their results through scientific collaboration.

Ministers reiterated the importance of monitoring the evolution of circulating virus strains.

They also invited the commission to explore the possibilities of a pooled purchase or vaccine bank mechanism to ensure a robust and responsive supply of vaccines.

Finally, they called for joint efforts to enhance the acceptability of HPAI vaccination in international trade and invited the commission and member states to develop an operational roadmap to support these dialogues and discussions.

Background to avian influenza outbreak

In recent years, the majority of European countries, and a large number of countries worldwide, have been affected by highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) epizootics, with the current epizootic in Europe being the most severe in recent history.

As part of its priorities in the veterinary field, the French presidency of the Council of the European Union has launched a strategic debate on vaccination against HPAI.

In order to ensure that the views of all member states were taken into account, the presidency prepared a questionnaire on the basis of the discussions, and responses were received from all delegations.

A summary of the results was presented to the working party on Animal and Veterinary Questions (Chief Veterinary Officers) in March, followed by an exchange of views.

Prevention zone

Earlier this week, the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ), which was introduced back in November to help slow the spread of bird flu across Northern Ireland, was lifted.

And, the ban on poultry gatherings will end on June 1, according to the NI Minister of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots.

The AIPZ placed a legal requirement on all bird keepers in Northern Ireland to follow strict biosecurity measures.