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What it's like working on the ground during a bird flu outbreak

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With a background in border controls working as a Veterinary delivery partner for Heathrow Border Inspection Post, followed by a Senior Veterinary Inspector role based in Crewe, I became involved in the 2017 Avian Influenza (AI) outbreak as Case Vet Officer, assisting with the cull and undertaking surveillance visits.

There is a vast literature and many sources of information on the epidemiological characteristics of the Orthomyxoviridae family (Avian Influenza virus). I would like to use this opportunity to advise colleagues of the day to day challenges faced by Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) field vets new to this work.

As a veterinary professional getting to grips with an AI outbreak, you will be expected to contribute with sound expertise in the identification of affected and exposed poultry. You are an integrator between agricultural and public-health interests, promoting and teaching the principles of biosecurity measures for the protection of livestock and people exposed to poultry.

First AI outbreak experience, first visit –first time Veterinary Case Officer

For my first job on the morning of 26th of January 2017 I was assigned an initial tracing visit, to inspect a commercial premises with approximately 1,200 breeding pheasants (36 weeks old). A very small percentage showed signs of disease which was nothing like the classic AI picture and only 8 dead birds had been reported (under 1%) in a period of 48 hours.

Having never seen AI infected pheasants before, I did not want to make a presumptive diagnosis of a disease that was not present. The birds had been sourced from an already declared infected premises (IP), so the stakes were high. On inspecting all the bird pens, which was made more difficult by approaching darkness and lack of light, I found about 1% of birds were lethargic, had neurological signs and nasal discharge so I decided to call it a report case. Samples were taken and results were Polymerase Chain Reaction positive for H5N8. I was given invaluable professional assistance by the Animal Health Officer assigned for the visit, without whom the whole process would have been far more difficult and time consuming.

Some APHA vets may never have been able to join the whirlpool of attending an IP but they are part of the team covering for those sent on detached duty. Their role is as important as being there. Without them, business as usual could not move forward and the implications of delays could be detrimental for APHA and stakeholders.

In the eyes of the general public, you are a fountain of knowledge on AI

Imagine you are about to deliver a lecture on AI awareness and preparedness to stakeholders and the general public. It might seem like a nightmare, thinking you are alone and everything from completing reports, compensation forms and licensing, is put on your shoulders – but you are wrong. There is an entire team that has well-defined roles. Liaise with your line manager and seek sound advice from more senior veterinary colleagues that have previously faced a similar situation.

The bigger the enterprise, the more complex the questions you are going to face. Be prepared to be asked the following:

  • Why do all the birds on the premises have to be culled? Why not all tested one by one?
  • Will they be reimbursed for the total number of culled birds? Are fancy birds compensated at their true market value?
  • When will I be able to repopulate?
  • Is it safe to eat poultry and poultry products?
  • Is it safe to pick up or handle /sell eggs or feathers?
  • Is it safe to hunt?
  • Is it allowed/ legal to collect birds off a shooting ground? Can they be moved?
  • Pigeon fanciers subject to surveillance visits will ask why people living a couple of miles away from their premises are not subject to the same regime.

Be prepared to mitigate this phenomenon’s social, economic, and health impact. As the disease continues to circulate in wild bird populations across Europe, vigilance is our best card to play.

Last but not least, I want to acknowledge the immense input the team of vets and Animal Health Officers based in Crewe have had into my progress and professional development. I greatly appreciate my involvement with them all.

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This post was edited 1 February

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