If one looks at the overview of the world organization for animal health (OIE) concerning outbreaks of avian influenza, one could get immediately depressed. And to be frank, we do. A recent survey by the British Poultry Council showed that more than 15% of the responders have a negative future outlook for their existence.
This negativity is directly linked to two outbreaks of H5N8 which Great Britain encountered last winter. As a similar survey, done before the outbreaks, showed no doomsday signs. And it is not only in Britain, AI outbreaks in Germany, the Netherlands and the US resulted in a similar downward trend in farmers’ confidence.
And indeed avian influenza is playing havoc, on individual farms as well as on a global level. According to Dutch based financer Rabobank the outbreaks could affect global trade streams, especially as the virus has moved further into Europe to Hungary, and in the US to central states like Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas.
That is serious business, however, the bank’s report says that despite all threats, there is a bright future for the poultry industry. The same is stated by the British Poultry Council. Sentiment may be down due to avian influenza, the consumption of poultry products is up!
That said, we are in an era where we have to get use to the constant presence of avian influenza. With the re-emergence of avian influenza the discussion around vaccination is flaring up again. Immunisation through vaccination against avian influenza is the only way to move forward according to some in the industry. They have a point, especially when it comes to battling acute outbreaks.
However, a general vaccination does not guarantee an optimal protection. The first risk of relying on vaccination instead of thorough prevention is that one is dependent on the protection of the vaccine strains. Multiple/cross protection is possible, but in the case of the latest outbreak, no vaccine gave optimal protection. That is why vaccination to battle the acute outbreaks wasn’t even considered. The same is happening in human medicine this flu season. Existing vaccination programmes weren’t able to keep up with the evolution of the field strain, causing overflowing hospitals around the world and more cases than usual of pneumonia.
Even if vaccination is widely adopted, it will be a real challenge to achieve a level of protection that can stop an outbreak in its tracks. For vaccination to do its job, the appliance should be mandatory and the process checked and controlled. In an ideal world there is no issue, but in the real world there is. An example is the vaccination against Gumboro’s disease. A good vaccination blanket does exists, but farmers only do their utmost, and spend the extra buck, when an outbreak is getting close. Such liberties cannot be allowed when it comes to AI vaccination if one wants it to be a real preventative measure.
Vaccination against avian influenza is a possibility, but there is a great risk that they will give a false sense of security. The influenza virus has many appearances and is extremely hard to fight. Even with tens of thousands of human lives at stake every year, influenza is still as prevalent as the common cold. A high standard of biosecurity and a thorough early warning system kept the current outbreaks from spreading. Even with a vaccination programme in place, those measures cannot be