A new bird flu strain detected in Europe, which is similar to strains reported to be circulating in 2014 in Asia, poses a significant threat to the poultry sector, especially in low-resourced countries situated along the Black Sea and East Atlantic migratory routes of wild birds, the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has warned.

Germany, the Netherlands and the UK have confirmed the new bird flu virus strain H5N8 on poultry farms, and German authorities have also found the virus in a wild bird.

Earlier this year, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea reported outbreaks of H5N8 in poultry as well as findings in migratory birds and waterfowl. The fact that the bird flu virus has now been found within a very short time interval in three European countries, both in a wild bird and in three very different poultry production systems, suggests that wild birds may have played a role in spreading the virus, FAO and OIE experts said.

H5N8 has so far not been confirmed to infect people. However, it is highly pathogenic for domestic poultry, causing significant mortality in chickens and turkeys. The bird flu virus can also infect wild birds, which show little signs of illness. It is known from other influenza viruses that wild birds are able to carry the virus long distances.

Should poultry systems with low-biosecurity conditions become infected with bird flu in countries with limited veterinary preparedness, the virus could spread through farms with devastating effects, both on vulnerable livelihoods as well as on country economies and trade.

The best way for countries to safeguard against these impacts is to encourage better biosecurity and to maintain surveillance systems that detect outbreaks early and enable veterinary services to respond rapidly.

The new virus strain provides a stark reminder to the world that avian influenza viruses continue to evolve and emerge with potential threats to public health, food security and nutrition, to the livelihoods of vulnerable poultry farmers, as well as to trade and national economies. Therefore extreme vigilance is strongly recommended while progressive control efforts must be sustained and financed.

In particular, to protect poultry-related livelihoods and trade, FAO and OIE are recommending at-risk countries to:
• increase surveillance efforts for the early detection of H5N8 and other influenza viruses;
• maintain and further strengthen rapid response capacities of veterinary services;
• reinforce biosecurity measures, with particular emphasis on minimizing contact between domestic poultry and wild birds; and,
• raise awareness of hunters and other individuals who may come into contact with wildlife in order to provide early information on sick or dead wild birds.