France set for new mass cull of ducks in third bird flu epidemic in five years

Duck farms in southwestern France are facing the third outbreak of bird flu in five years, after epidemics in the winters of 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 led to the culling of millions of animals.
Duck farms in southwestern France are facing the third outbreak of bird flu in five years, after epidemics in the winters of 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 led to the culling of millions of animals. © GAIZKA IROZ / AFP

France’s government has opened the way for hundreds of thousands of ducks to be euthanised to contain an outbreak of bird flu that has already seen 700,000 fowl destroyed. The government has stressed that there is no risk to humans in this third epidemic in recent years, but scientists warn of long-term harm.


France’s government said Tuesday that 700,000 birds euthanised since December would be followed by hundreds of thousands more as authorities expanded the range of authorisations for culls on farms affected by the outbreak.

Officials in the Gers, Landes, Pyrénées-Atlantiques and Hautes-Pyrénées, as well as 11 municipalities in Lot-et-Garonne, all administrative departments in southwestern France, were newly authorised to destroy birds. 

An earlier authorisation published 3 January concerned 110 communes in the Landes and 15 in Pyrénées-Atlantiques. 

The expanded measures were taken “considering the rapid spread of the virus responsible for highly contagious avian influenza of the subtype H5N8 in wild and domestic fowl and the necessity to prevent the risk of the expansion of the epizootic”, according to a note in the Official Journal, France’s registry of legal information.

Despite more than 700,000 birds already being culled since the first outbreak in the Landes in early December, 198 clusters of the flu had been identified on Monday, up from 127 on Friday, according to Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie.

Several hundred thousand more birds, mostly ducks raised to produce foie gras, would be euthanised in the coming days as mesures of precaution, the agriculture ministry said. 

Poultry farmers called on the government to expand the cull, warning it was not happening fast enough to stop the virus from spreading.

Third epidemic in five years

The H5N8 strain of the avian flu virus was detected in the Netherlands in October, sparking warnings around Europe. 

Since it was detected in southwestern France in early December, the virus has spread quickly enough to represent the third epidemic of the bird flu in the country in five years. 

Bird flu prompted culls during outbreaks in the winters of 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, in which respectively 25 million and then another 4.5 million birds were killed. 

Duck farmers were already suffering due to the Covid-19 epidemic, which reduced the demand for foie gras over the holiday season. China suspended imports from France over the bird flu outbreak. 

France’s government announced compensation for farmers losing birds and sought to reassure that consuming foie gras and other animal products presented no risk to humans

“Continue to eat duck, chicken, eggs, foie gras, there is absolutely no risk, this bird flu is not transmittable to humans through food, it is safe to continue enjoying our artisanal products,” said Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie during a visit to the Gers on Monday. 



No short-term risk to humans

Scientists confirmed there was no risk of the bird flu virus infecting humans for the moment, but warned what continued epidemics and mutations of the virus could entail.

“In the short term, there is no risk of zoonosis,” Jean-Luc Guérin, professor and specialist of avian diseases at the ENVT veterinary school in Toulouse, told French magazine L’Express.

“This virus is perfectly adapted to birds, especially ducks. But leaving it to thrive among bird farms for years and decades would mean taking the risk of it becoming dangerous for humans.”

The H5N8 virus is a mutation of H5N1, which began to infect humans in Asia in 2005 with a mortality rate as high as 50 percent, virologist Hervé Fleury told the magazine. 

(with newswires)


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