At the beginning of this month, the World Organisation of Animal Health (OIE) raised a warning finger. ‘Disease surveillance must be strengthened globally,’ was the message sent out to the world from Paris. Even in Paris they appear to have been shocked just how the new high-pathogen H5N8 virus had arrived in Europe from Korea at record speed. Up to just 100 kilometres from our headquarters in Reeuwijk…

Fortunately, the Netherlands learned its lesson in 2003. That was when the avian influenza (or bird flu) became catastrophic. The cause? People thought serological testing was superfluous. After all, avian influenza had not occurred in the Netherlands since 1926. The result? Half of all laying hens had to be destroyed and the immediate cost was some 300 million euros.

The benefit from 2003 is that the Netherlands has invested in the Early Warning System (EWS). This is a system aimed at early detection of diseases and thus limiting the spread of any infection. EWS has now proved its worth. The damage caused by wigeon ducks remained ‘limited’ to around 50 million euros. Without the EWS, a full-blown disaster scenario might have unfolded. The OIE would be the last to deny this.

The OIE wants poultry farmers and veterinarians to test more intensively. They argue for deploying veterinary systems broadly to bring diseases to light in good time. Serological research plays a vital role in this. After all, animals that might appear to be healthy clinically, could still be harbouring something sub-clinically. Take for example the presence of two subtypes of the viral haemagglutinin, H5 and H7. Here the animals give no appearance of any disease presence; they look as fit as a fiddle. Until H5 and H7 together decide to mutate into a high-pathogen virus. Then all hell breaks loose. And the OIE wants to prevent this by testing more intensively. And that doesn’t appear to be the case everywhere. Otherwise, the OIE would not issue this warning.

I know from my own experience that there are countries where these tests are not performed, or they are carried out too little or too late. And that’s the sting. Sooner or later a form of bird flu is going to erupt in these countries, influenza without equal. It’s simply on the cards. And we’ve seen just how quickly this can happen. And its serious consequences. Not only for poultry and the poultry farmer, but sometimes also for public health. Take the bird flu virus H7N9, dangerous to humans, which surfaced in Asia in 2013. Last month a Canadian who had been in China was admitted to hospital with the disease. It can spread at lightning speed.

Poultry farmers across the world need to recognise their responsibilities. They need to act seriously in response to the OIE’s call. That means monitoring their poultry, taking preventive measures and checking whether those preventive measures are working. In short, check, check, double-check! If a poultry farmer doesn’t do this, then he’s in for a rude awakening. That’s when you’ll hear the familiar: ‘If only I had…’ but then it’s too late. And that’s what the OIE wants to prevent. And if you ask me: quite right too!

Barend van Dam, Director of BioChek

This post is also available in: Spanish Russian

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