Making science work for development

The fight against bird flu

Driving the worldwide health response to the threat of avian influenza

Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, has proven itself to be a serious global threat. While outbreaks devastate the poultry industry, 60% mortality rates in human cases also make the disease a major public health risk. Research by the Royal Veterinary College has helped us better understand avian influenza, while also having significant impacts on international policy – translating into control and risk management strategies of the United Nations as well as governments across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Avian influenza, one of the most high-profile viruses in recent history, is a highly transmissible poultry disease that can have severe impacts both economically and in terms of public health. Outbreaks among chickens can result in mortality rates approaching 100%, which, when combined with the common preventative measures of market closure and culling, can lead to massive losses for the poultry industry. Previous virus outbreaks in Southeast Asia alone have led to the destruction of 140 million birds and losses of around $10 billion – devastating the livelihoods of the poorest poultry farmers. There have also been nearly 600 recorded cases of humans contracting avian influenza. Those cases have shown a mortality rate of 60%, making avian influenza a serious public health risk.

The threat of avian influenza caused a rush of research to better understand the disease (Image the World Bank)

Research by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has played a key role in helping the world combat avian influenza. It has influenced international policies by revealing the best approaches to protect against the virus and quickly respond to outbreaks.

Through internationally collaborative research in part funded by the UK Departments for International Development and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, RVC researchers carried out a range of studies to determine what factors cause the virus to spread and to identify geographic hot spots for infection. The work identified high-risk farming systems and demonstrated that vaccination campaigns could actually cause the infection to spread even more. The findings also showed that culling birds and permanent market closure – commonly used preventative measures – were not as effective in controlling the disease as previously thought. Instead, restricting the movement of birds and temporarily closing markets for ‘rest days’ could both contain outbreaks more effectively and prevent devastating losses to the poultry industry.

The work of the RVC has received global recognition and the researchers have been called upon as international experts to inform major health policies. Their research has been instrumental in shaping the avian influenza control policies and risk management strategies of the UK, the United Nations and governments across Asia, Africa and Europe. Because the studies were closely aligned with global disease control policy, governments have been able to easily incorporate the findings into their risk management strategies and tailor control measures to suit their particular needs.

The research helped put new controls in place to prevent the spread of bird flu (Image Daniel Gasiencia)

The impact of the RVC’s research has stretched beyond just human and animal health. By warning of the flaws in costly vaccination campaigns and culling programmes, the research has helped to protect economies and local livelihoods in some of the world’s poorest countries. The RVC has also helped to strengthen an international surveillance and control network to stand guard against avian influenza. The RVC researchers trained veterinary staff from over 70 countries worldwide on how to better spot and respond to potential outbreaks of this dangerous disease.

Read more about this research in the original impact case study submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs | Department for International Development