As avian influenza surges, what to watch out for

Back in 2015 we reported on the avian influenza (AI) outbreak in the U.S. and Canada that occurred earlier that year. 50 million birds were killed to prevent the spread of the virus and poultry farmers were only able to restock in late in 2015.

European outbreak

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has expressed concern about a big spike in highly pathogenic avian influenza in Europe.

The number of cases of highly pathogenic H5N8 surged by nearly 75% between December and January

The number of cases of highly pathogenic H5N8 surged by nearly 75% between December and January as outbreaks were confirmed in the United Kingdom and 17 other European countries. The U.K.’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed that the latest outbreak involved the same H5N8 strain of avian influenza involved in the previous U.K. outbreaks and in 761 outbreaks in 18 countries across Europe

Nearly 1.6 million poultry have been culled as a result of the virus in Europe. This has resulted in huge financial losses to producers in countries that are affected.

To highlight the potential scale of AI outbreaks, in South Korea the government has ordered the cull of more than 33 million poultry since the first reported case last November, at an estimated cost of USD 400 million to the industry (and set to rise).

How avian influenza spreads

Avian influenza spreads from bird to bird by direct contact or through contaminated body fluids and droppings. The disease can spread:

  • Between birds in the same environment
  • From the wild bird population (waterfowl, especially ducks, may carry the disease with no mortality and no clinical signs, especially if it is low pathogenic)
  • Directly from infected birds to susceptible birds
  • By humans, vehicles or equipment contaminated with body fluids and droppings from infected birds
  • By wild animals / rodents contaminated with droppings from infected birds

Avian influenza itself

Avian Influenza can mutate to be zoonotic, meaning it can pass between animals and humans

Avian influenza is a disease that can affect poultry, and although typically an exotic disease within Europe, it is seen as endemic in Asia.

Some endemic and exotic diseases are zoonotic which means they can pass between animals and humans. Avian Influenza can mutate to be zoonotic, which is why there is so much interest around it from a public health perspective.

There are two types of avian influenza:

  1. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is the more serious type, and it is often fatal in birds.
  2. Low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) is usually less serious and can cause mild breathing problems. The severity of LPAI depends on the type of bird and whether it has any other illnesses.

In Europe, should a flock of birds be shown to be infected with avian influenza then governments require the immediate culling of these birds. Government compensation is limited, and could be reduced further if outbreaks continue due to the potential exposure. Farmers and insurers are increasingly being asked to assume this risk.

Why should we be concerned?

Apart from the huge potential financial loss to farmers, governments and insurers, there is also the risk to humans a zoonotic disease poses, with the potential for the AI virus to recombine with human flu viruses.

Contingency planning is a requirement across the European Union, in order to manage exotic notifiable diseases of animals. Governments have powers to cull (kill) animals to control the spread of some animal diseases.

Significant bird mortality levels of 80% dead in infected flocks within 24 hours is a common finding

Outbreaks of exotic disease present a significant threat to farming, to rural communities, to animal keepers and to the economy as a whole.

Significant bird mortality levels of 80% dead in infected flocks within 24 hours is a common finding.

If a vet has reported a suspicion that is considered highly likely to be avian influenza, the government can cull birds and dispose of eggs before confirmation is received from the lab to control the suspected disease. This can lead to huge losses through the supply chain, from farmer, to supermarket, and ultimately to consumer.

Livestock insurance market

There are only a few insurers that are willing to write AI cover globally, and given the recent outbreaks globally the market appetite is shrinking fast.

When looking at technical classes of business such as livestock mortality it is essential to understand how your policy will respond, and what costs will be covered.

Typical coverage in the London market covers:

  • loss of income (business interruption following government slaughter order)
  • secondary clean up costs (which can be significant depending on local regulations)
  • increased costs of working

As well as direct payments for loss of income as a result of infected stock we are also looking at other covers that protect associated industries against disruption of supply or restricted access within the proximity of an outbreak (restriction zones).

Cover is evolving all the time to respond to client requirements, both at the farm level and up the supply chain.


Guest blogger Dan Fairweather is Director of Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries for Willis Towers Watson, based in London. Dan has a zoology degree from Nottingham University and joined the insurance industry in 2000 as a specialist aquaculture claims broker. He joined Willis in 2012 to head up the aquaculture division and has since taken over the management of the company’s Livestock division.

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