FAO and OIE this week said countries at high risk for a new bird flu strain, H5N8, should improve prevention efforts through increased bio-security to minimize contact between wild birds and poultry.
The new strain poses a significant threat to the poultry sector, especially in low-resourced countries situated along the Black Sea and East Atlantic migratory routes of wild birds, FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health said.
Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have confirmed the strain on poultry farms, and German authorities have also found the virus in a wild bird.
Early this year, the People's Republic of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea reported outbreaks of H5N8 in poultry as well as findings in migratory birds and waterfowl.
Because the virus has now been found within a very short time interval in three European countries, both in a wild bird and in three very different poultry production systems, FAO and OIE suggest wild birds may have played a role in spreading the virus.
H5N8 has so far not been confirmed to infect people. However, it is highly pathogenic for domestic poultry, causing significant mortality in chickens and turkeys. The virus can also infect wild birds, which show little signs of illness. It is known from other influenza viruses that wild birds are able to carry the virus long distances, the groups said.
Should poultry systems with low-biosecurity conditions become infected in countries with limited veterinary preparedness, the virus could spread through farms with devastating effects, both on vulnerable livelihoods as well as on country economies and trade.
The best way for countries to safeguard against these impacts is to encourage better biosecurity and to maintain surveillance systems that detect outbreaks early and enable veterinary services to respond rapidly.
The new virus strain provides a reminder to the world that avian influenza viruses continue to evolve and emerge with potential threats to public health, food security and nutrition, to the livelihoods of vulnerable poultry farmers, as well as to trade and national economies, the groups said.
"Therefore, extreme vigilance is strongly recommended. while progressive control efforts must be sustained and financed," they said.
While it has not yet affected humans, it is related to the H5N1 virus, which is known to have spread from Asia into Europe and Africa in 2005–2006.
The H5N1 epidemic, in which wild birds have also been implicated, has caused the deaths of nearly 400 people and hundreds of millions of poultry to date.