Philip Lymbery, Global CEO of Compassion in World Farming, has today (13 February) called on the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to develop urgent reforms to the global poultry sector to help prevent highly pathogenic viruses – such as bird flu – spiralling out of control and creating a human pandemic.
The call comes in response to reports that avian influenza has infected birds as far afield as Antarctica and the virus has mutated from birds to mammals such as otters and foxes, bears and racoons, as well as seals and sea lions. Since October 2021 the virus has claimed the lives of an estimated 140 million poultry globally – including 48 million birds in the Europe and just over 53 million in the US – causing disruption to agriculture and the environment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that, in the past 20 years, there have been almost 870 cases of human infection with the avian influenza H5N1 virus reported from 21 countries. Of these, 457 were fatal. And experts have warned of a new 'step-change' in the spread of the infection.
The virus is thought to have originated in intensive poultry farms in Asia, as the virus passes quickly from bird to bird when flocks are kept in overcrowded intensive systems. Industrial poultry production, in which thousands of birds are packed into a shed, gives a virus a constant supply of new hosts – it can move very quickly among the birds perhaps mutating as it does so. In this situation, highly virulent strains are likely to emerge. The disease then passes to wild birds and creates a vicious circle between farms and wildlife, spreading quickly throughout the world. Some of these new strains can affect mammals.
Philip Lymbery, Global CEO of Compassion in World Farming, who writes about this issue in today's The Scotsman newspaper, said: "This worrying situation is fast spiralling out of control and poses a serious threat to global human health.
"We are now just a few mutations away from it spreading from person to person. To stand a chance of curbing this crisis we have to learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. We must act before it's too late and that means urgently reforming the poultry sector worldwide – moving away from intensive systems that provide a hothouse breeding ground for the emergence of new and more deadly strains of virus."
"First, poultry need to be vaccinated to help stem the flow of transmission between wild birds and mammals, but the FAO must act now to devise a strategy for a future poultry sector that has smaller flocks, lower stocking densities and fewer farms in the same areas, giving the birds more space to reduce the risk of highly pathogenic disease spreading.
"Giving birds more space will entail reduced production of meat and eggs so we can all play a part by reducing our overconsumption of animal-sourced foods. This will bring several other benefits including increased feasibility of meeting the Paris climate targets and a reduction in the use of soy and cereals, such as wheat and maize, as animal feed."
For further information read Compassion in World Farming's Is the next pandemic on our plate? report.
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