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PARIS – Governments must vaccinate against bird flu, which has killed hundreds of millions of birds and infected mammals worldwide, to prevent the virus from turning into a new pandemic, the head of the World Organization for Animal Health said.
The severity of the current avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, and the resulting economic and personal damage have led governments to reconsider poultry vaccination. However, some, like the US, are still reluctant because of the trade restrictions this entails.
“We are emerging from a COVID crisis where every country understands that the pandemic hypothesis is real,” World Organization for Animal Health Director-General Monique Eloit told Reuters in an interview.
“Almost all countries that do international trade are now infected with the virus, so maybe it’s time to discuss vaccination in addition to systematic killing, which is probably the main tool (to control the disease),” she said.
The Paris-based organization is holding a five-day general meeting starting Sunday that will focus on global control of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI.
According to a survey by the World Organization for Animal Health, only 25 percent of member countries import poultry products vaccinated against HPAI.
The EU’s 27 member states agreed last year to implement a bird flu vaccine strategy.
In the year France is set to become the first EU country to start a vaccination program from ducks, spending around $1.10 billion in 2021/22 to compensate the poultry industry for its heavy losses.
“Now it is our responsibility to use other tools such as vaccines. This is for animal health, for public health, but also to respond to the problems of society,” said French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau. General Assembly of Animal Health.
Eloit said the EU’s move to vaccination could inspire others to follow suit.
“If a big exporter like the EU starts moving in that direction, it will have a ripple effect,” Eloit said.
“To leave no stone unturned in the fight against HPAI, USDA continues to strengthen vaccine options that can protect poultry from this persistent threat,” the US Department of Agriculture told Reuters on Friday.
However, he still considers biosecurity measures the most effective tool to prevent the virus in commercial herds, he said in emailed responses.
The risk to humans from bird flu is low, but countries must prepare for any potential changes, the World Health Organization said.
Eloit said that because bird flu is transmitted by wild birds that migrate, the vaccine should focus on free-range animals, especially ducks. Vaccinating chickens, which account for 60% of the world’s poultry production, would not make sense, she says.
In the current HPAI outbreak, the H5N1 strain has been found in many mammals and has killed thousands, including sea lions, foxes, otters and cats.