Vienna, 6 July 2023 – Today, on World Zoonosis Day, global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS flags that governments have not learnt the lesson from COVID-19 that human, environmental and animal health must be addressed together to prevent another pandemic. The surging Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreaks are a case in point: a potentially “looming pandemic”, driven by the expansion of intensive farming. Governments hesitate to tackle this underlying problem, while time is running out.
The recent HPAI infections in Poland, which have killed nine cats in three separate regions, highlight the need for holistic prevention strategies. Wendla Beyer, FOUR PAWS Policy Coordinator, said, “HPAI will cause untold damage, beyond what we have seen so far, if governments continue ignoring that factory farming accelerates the circulation and mutation of the virus. We need to reshape farming and our relationship to animals and ecosystems if we want to protect public health.”
HPAI reached unprecedented geographic spread and record outbreaks, with 50 million poultry culled in the epidemiologic year 2021/2022 in Europe alone. In wild birds, avian flu is causing alarming mortality rates, threatening to wipe out endangered species. The virus killed hundreds of thousands of wild birds, including 10% of the Humboldt penguins in Chile in 2023 and 50,000 Peruvian pelicans and boobies in 2022; it is decimating breeding colonies at the time of writing.
In 2022, European Food Safety Authority figures show rising infections among mammals, alongside 52,000 minks being killed in fur farms, and 8,117 sea lions on the Chilean coast, among other species. Despite the magnitude of outbreaks, the increased risk of mutations transmissible among humans, the loss of animal lives and economic repercussions, there are no strategies in place to address the root causes.
Ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, wildlife exploitation and intensive farming accelerate the evolution and spread of emerging infectious diseases, of which 75% are zoonoses (transmitted between animals and humans). In light of this reality, the One Health approach can foster transdisciplinary cooperation and community participation to develop comprehensive strategies that prevent outbreaks by balancing and optimising the health of people, animals and the environment and fostering wellbeing.
Yet current strategies against avian influenza do not reflect this approach. Response measures rely on killing infected and healthy poultry near outbreaks, and policies focus on biosecurity and vaccine development. But evidence shows this is not enough. Avian influenza outbreaks often occur in establishments without outdoor access, and poultry facilities with high biosecurity (eg. breeders) are also affected. Strategies lack focus on the root causes of zoonotic infections.
“Industrial agriculture, reliant on environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and systemic animal suffering, is a main driver of zoonotic disease risks. Yet governments refuse to treat it as such. That’s a dangerous gamble, and unfortunately, public health is at stake.”
Wendla Beyer, FOUR PAWS Policy Coordinator
Rethinking Farming: Fewer animals farmed and reorganised production systems
We cannot continue having this many poultry in factory farms as they exacerbate the circulation and development of avian influenza. Also, to limit viral transmission between facilities, we need to reduce the density of industrial farms. Decentralising production, including slaughter, is another key to limiting disease spread and animal welfare issues. Lastly, there should be no poultry farms near natural resting areas of migratory birds (wetlands), where the risk of inter-species contact and viral transmission is particularly high.
Immediate Solutions: Winter gardens and planting trees
Equipping farms with winter gardens allows poultry safe outdoor access during outbreaks, when indoor housing is compulsory. It’s a simple solution that supports animal welfare and free-range organic farms. Planting trees and shrubs in the outdoor areas of farms naturally keeps away waterfowl, minimising contact (and disease transmission) between domestic and wild birds.
End Fur Farming
Fur farms are mixing vessels for the reassortment of viruses that could become transmissible between humans. Vaccines, biosecurity and routine surveillance on fur farms are not enough. This high-risk practice must be banned.
Beyer concluded by saying that, “We need to rethink production systems. Transitioning from industrial livestock facilities to small-scale farms where animals are kept in species-appropriate conditions will limit transmission, cullings, animal suffering, financial losses and risks to human and animal health.”
World Zoonoses Day commemorates the first vaccination administered against a zoonotic disease, rabies. It presents an opportunity to educate people and raise awareness of diseases that can spread between animals and people.
Nine cats die due to Bird Flu:
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FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them. Founded in 1988 in Vienna by Heli Dungler and friends, the organisation advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. The sustainable campaigns and projects of FOUR PAWS focus on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, farm animals and wild animals – such as bears, big cats and orangutans – kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones. With offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, the USA and Vietnam as well as sanctuaries for rescued animals in eleven countries, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term solutions. www.four-paws.org