Led by major chicken producing regions such as Europe and the United States, there is growing support for proposals to use vaccines to combat avian influenza (bird flu) rather than the mass cullings which have been a feature of recent bird flu outbreaks.
One of the factors is that bird flu has become endemic, rather than seasonal, in many parts of the world. Another is that the rapid spread of bird flu across the world in recent years, carried by migratory wild birds, means that the disease has become a global problem.
Producers in every country will face the threat of repeated infections from wild birds, and the argument is that vaccination will be the only way to control the spread of the disease.
As the disease spread from Europe to North America this year, more than 47 million birds were culled in Europe and in North America it has topped 40 million.
There are still major obstacles to overcome, including resistance to vaccination because of the difficulty distinguishing between vaccinated and infected birds. While research is proceeding apace, there is as yet no clearly effective vaccine for any of the many bird flu strains.
Poultry World reports that the International Egg Commission and the International Poultry Commission have drafted a joint statement to persuade poultry industries, international organisations and governments to allow vaccination, while mitigating the risk of trade barriers.
A global expert on avian influenza, Prof Arjan Stegeman, says the poultry industry is under threat because “stamping out” bird flu outbreaks through culling does not eliminate the virus any more.
“If we do not change how we confront this disease, the poultry industry is in serious danger,” he says.
“Avian influenza has to be stopped in its tracks as there is a public health side to it as well. The current virus strain is not dangerous to humans but we do see mutations and have even witnessed cross species infections to mammals recently.”
Vaccination is too valuable a tool not to use. “And even if we don’t have a perfect vaccine, it can still be valuable. Over the years, various animal diseases have been controlled by imperfect vaccines. Newcastle disease, foot and mouth disease, and Aujeszky’s disease are all good examples of that,” he notes.
In South Africa, the poultry industry is watching developments in Europe, where legislation in support of vaccination is expected to come before the EU parliament in the near future. If this happens, it will open the way to seek government backing for vaccination proposals.