“Collaboration is vital to keep people and animals healthy”

Veterinary medicine plays a major role in interdisciplinary approach to avian flu

It is not that often that the Dutch Minister for Health, Welfare and Sport and the Dutch Minister for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality jointly go on a work visit. Nevertheless, they jointly visited our faculty last year with a delegation of top civil servants. The subject was the approach to avian flu. Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport Ernst Kuipers: “The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine plays a major role in this.”

Since 2021, Europe has faced the largest pandemic of avian flu since 2003. In the Netherlands, almost Seven million birds from poultry farmers and hobby farmers were killed between January 2020 and 1 May 2023 to stop the spread of the avian flu virus. The current avian flu is also affecting wild birds. In 2022, wild birds were infected throughout the year for the first time. That generated a lot of attention in the media and also from politicians.

Collaboration is vital

“Within Europe, the Netherlands leads the way in the prevention and monitoring of avian flu”, said Kuipers, following the visit to Utrecht. “The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Utrecht University plays a major role in this.” Kuipers pointed out that the faculty is the veterinary knowledge centre of the Netherlands and that it closely works together on avian flu with other organisations such as the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority and Wageningen Bioveterinary Research.

“The different organisations have a lot of knowledge and expertise and work closely together to keep people and animals healthy”, said Kuipers. “Collaboration is vital in the control of diseases such as avian flu to be able to ensure a healthy future for people and animals. Within these efforts, the One Health approach – the awareness that the health of people, animals and the environment are linked with each other – can provide solutions. For avian flu crosses the boundaries of sectors, disciplines and countries.”

Knowledge about wild animals, epidemiology and poultry

“At the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, we are working on solutions at various levels”, says Professor of Farm Animal Health, Arjan Stegeman. “We possess knowledge about the pathology of birds and mammals, conduct environmental-epidemiological research and collaborate in research into vaccination and biosecurity in poultry.”

One example of methodological research is a report from a group of scientists led by Dick Heederik, about the distribution of poultry farms in the Netherlands. This research revealed that in parts of the Gelderse Vallei region, the density of poultry farms is too high to stop the spread of the disease without preventive culling at the farms.

The Dutch Wildlife Health Centre of the faculty investigates diseases in wild animals in the Netherlands. Citizens and involved organisations report dead birds and mammals to the centre. The scientists investigate some of the animals in their own laboratory or send them for specific research to other labs, such as Wageningen Bioveterinary Research. “Screening for avian flu is a high priority”, says Professor of Pathology Andrea Gröne. “In July 2023, the Dutch government introduced a reporting requirement for mammals with avian flu. Fortunately, the number of reports is not that high this year. In the Netherlands, it has been established that at least 40 mammals have died due to avian flu since 2020; mainly foxes and polecats.”

First vaccinations against avian flu

“It is vital that we carefully monitor avian flu and other zoonoses”, says Stegeman. “We must prepare ourselves for scenarios in which the pathogen of avian flu mutates.” Most importantly, he wants to continue with research into the possibilities to prevent the spread of avian flu. Together with his fellow researchers, Stegeman has identified the knowledge gaps, and he wants to ensure that the knowledge acquired already is applied as quickly as possible in practice. “I am pleased that we recently started with a field experiment to test vaccination against avian flu. It works in the laboratory and now we are testing whether it also works on the farm.” Stegeman is hopeful and expects it will be possible to widely use the vaccinations after the field tests have been completed. He has already been calling for vaccination against avian flu since he gave his oration in 2003. “Now, at last, the first vaccinations will be given. That could be the start of a huge step forward.”

A dead marten was investigated by the Dutch Wildlife Health Centre, which amongst other things, established that it was infected with avian flu.

Avian flu

Avian influenza is an umbrella term for different flu viruses. Both a mild and a severe form of avian flu exist. Most viruses belong to the mild variant: Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI). Chickens infected with LPAI viruses suffer mild disease symptoms. Some types can adapt into a highly pathogenic variant: High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). This occurs in both chickens and turkeys and this variant can also be transmitted to waterfowl. Some variants of avian influenza can be transmitted to mammals and people. Fortunately, the chance of a human being infected is small. It is nevertheless important to prevent the infection of people as far as possible. That is because the virus could adapt and subsequently spread among people too.

Text: Maarten Post