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Avian Influenza and Wild Birds

This website aims to provide ornithological information relevant to Avian Influenza and the Wild Birds Directive. This is in response to the risk of the spread of avian influenza by migratory wild birds.

Whilst the Environment Directorate-General (DG Environment) is the lead service in relation to ornithological and wild bird conservation matters, the main European Commission source of information on avian influenza is the web site of the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General, which is the lead service on avian influenza and other animal health issues.

In autumn 2005 – prior to any outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) type H5N1 within the EU – DG Environment launched a first assessment of wild birds considered to present a higher risk in relation to the spread of avian influenza to the European Union.

This first urgent preliminary assessment of ornithological data was undertaken between December 2005 and May 2006 by Wetlands International and the European Union of Bird Ringing (EURING).

The results of this study provided the most complete scientific overview on the movements and use of important sites by 17 waterbird species, considered to present a higher risk of spreading HPAI H5N1 to the European Union.

Disclaimer: This was an independent study for DG Environment and therefore the views expressed in it cannot be taken as representing a formal position of the Commission services.

Meanwhile, between February and May 2006, there were very significant developments in relation to the spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) type H5N1 to the European Union, with more than 700 cases among wild birds in many Member States. This involved at least 25 species, most of which are categorised as waterfowl.

An Information note on “Avian influenza and migratory birds” (pdf 47KB) has been prepared by the Nature and Biodiversity Unit of DG Environment in consultation with the ORNIS Scientific Working Group. This has particular regard to avian influenza and the Birds Directive.

An effective response to avian influenza requires a multi-disciplinary approach, including ornithological expertise to ensure that an ornithological dimension is incorporated into surveillance and bio-security measures. DG Environment has therefore worked closely with DG SANCO and other Commission Services to ensure an integrated response to this problem. In December 2006, the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCOFCAH) Animal Health and Welfare and the ORNIS Committee / Scientific Working Group held a joint meeting to review current information and approaches to the problem. The report (pdf 49KB) of this meeting is supported by presentations and provides an overview of each topic.

In light of the identified outbreaks among waterbirds throughout the European Union DG Environment launched another study for further analysis of relevant information. The key objective was to update and expand the assessment of available ornithological data on European wild bird species considered to be at higher risk from the HPAI H5N1 strain of avian influenza, especially as regards their migrations, as well as concentration and high risk areas. This second assessment was carried out with a view to enabling the European Commission to provide reliable and credible information on the ornithological dimension of risks of further spread of HPAI H5N1 within the EU and to inform appropriate preparedness and response strategies for such eventualities.

The work was carried out by Wetlands International and EURING with financial support from DG Environment and comprised of desk and field studies. It resulted in the identification of 82 higher risk species for the introduction and spread of HPAI H5N1 in Europe, 29 of which were selected as bridge species that might act as a link between wild birds and poultry. These so-called bridge species comprise both migratory and non-migratory bird species that are more widespread and less dependent of wetland habitats, including species that come into more regular contact with poultry and humans. They are seen as having the potential to bridge the gap between sources of avian influenza outbreaks among waterbirds in wetlands and among poultry.

Disclaimer: This was an independent study for DG Environment and therefore the views expressed in it cannot be taken as representing a formal position of the Commission services.

Within the framework of this study the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has developed, on behalf of EURING, a Migration Mapping Tool, which can be accessed through the BTO’s portal. This provides a detailed overview of the movements of 21 higher risk species of wild birds to and from selected areas, based on recoveries of ringed birds.

Moreover, a review of mortality information focussing on Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) and Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) can also be accessed through the BTO’s portal. It takes into account the added value that certain bird species may have when used as sentinels and exposed to direct contact with wild birds. Sentinel species may be relevant in continuous surveillance studies of wild birds for the detection and early warning of avian influenza outbreaks in poultry. Apart from that, these studies can also offer new information on the ecology and evolution of viruses in wild birds.

This new data will assist surveillance of wild bird species considered to present a higher risk of spreading avian influenza within Europe. It should also support the relevant authorities in their preparedness for and responses to any outbreaks of avian influenza involving these species. The Migration Mapping Tool should help contribute to ensuring a scientifically based debate in relation to avian influenza and wild birds.