This summer, seabirds in Europe, North America, and Africa suffered unprecedented high mortality as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) swept through their breeding colonies. Given that the potential for HPAI—which originated in farmed poultry—to affect wild birds has been known for more than a decade, how were these continents caught off guard? Nations must assume responsibility for protecting wildlife from anthropogenic diseases, particularly those originating from ever-increasing livestock populations.
HPAI typically emerges in commercial poultry farms by conversion of an innocuous wild-type virus—aptly called low pathogenic avian influenza virus—into one that causes high mortality in poultry. The current HPAI virus originated in a commercial goose farm in China in 1996 and spread across the rapidly growing poultry populations in Asia, eventually substantially spilling over into wild birds in 2005. The virus caused numerous wild bird outbreaks in Asia and Europe, typically during autumn and winter, but has persisted year-round in wild birds in Europe since 2021. This year, it has spread quickly to breeding seabirds, including in Canada, France, Norway, South Africa, and the UK. For many of these long-lived species, already threatened by loss of habitat and climate change, the resulting mortality will have a large impact on their populations.
Read the Editorial in Science co-authored by professor Thijs Kuiken, virologist at the Department of Viroscience at the Erasmus MC.
Date: 28 October 2022