Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)


1.   Definition

  Avian influenza is a highly contagious viral disease affecting the respiratory, digestive and/or nervous system of many species of birds. It is caused by a Type A influenza virus. There are two types of avian influenza virus, low pathogenicity (LPAI) and high pathogenicity (HPAI). The last outbreak of avian influenza in Great Britain was in 1992.

2.   Contingency Plans

  Great Britain has in place high level contingency plans to deal with any future outbreaks of this disease, as required by European Union legislation (Council Directive 92/40). The Plan allows access to the facilities, equipment, personnel and all other appropriate measures necessary for the rapid and efficient eradication of an outbreak of avian influenza. These plans were approved by the EU Commission in 2000.

  The Contingency Plan for FMD, laid before Parliament on 28 March, will provide the detailed framework for any response. Appropriate sections of the plan will apply to inform the establishment of Local and National Disease Control Centres, the notification process, the involvement of stakeholders and operational partners, the ramping up of staff and other resources and the management structures.

  Operational Instructions are contained within Chapter 4 of VIPER (Veterinary Instructions, Procedures and Emergency Routines). This is currently undergoing review but existing instructions are sufficient for the field to respond to suspicion, investigation, confirmation and control of disease. A necessary update to reflect changes in disposal hierarchy, valuation and contact details was issued to the field in early March 2003.

3.   Control Strategy

  The Diseases of Poultry (England) Order 2003 came into force on 30 April. It updates and replaces earlier similar legislation to enact European Union Council Directive 92/40/EEC introducing control measures for avian influenza. The new Order also contains powers to check that disease is not present. Similar updating legislation is being made for Scotland and Wales. Instructions to field staff are contained in State Veterinary Service Chapter 4.

  The main aspects of disease control are:

 (i)   Compulsory notification of suspected cases of avian influenza

  The legislation requires that any suspicion of disease must without delay be notified to the Divisional Veterinary Manager. It empowers veterinary inspectors to enter any premises, conduct all necessary inquiries and take samples to ascertain whether disease exists.

 (ii)   Declaration of infected premises

  This includes prohibition on movements of animals, litter and vehicles into or out of an infected place. Vehicles must be cleansed and disinfected. There is compulsory slaughter of diseased poultry and poultry suspected of being infected or which has been exposed to infection. Eggs on the infected premises must also be destroyed.

  During the recent outbreak of avian influenza in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, those member states used preventive culls to stop the spread of disease. We do not have these powers here automatically for avian influenza—House of Lords' amendments during the passage of the Animal Health Act 2002 restricted such automatic powers to Foot and Mouth Disease—though we will be seeking them through an Order requiring Affirmative Resolution to ensure we have the flexibility of response to an outbreak here.

 (iii)   Declaration of an infected area

  This includes movement restrictions on poultry and hatching eggs within a protection zone of at least 3 kilometres around the infected premises, and in a surveillance zone of at least 10 kilometres. Within these zones, poultry must be kept in their living quarters. They must not be moved unless authorised by a veterinary inspector. Meat and eggs produced during the incubation period of the disease shall be traced and destroyed. Markets, shows and fairs in the infected area are prohibited. Waste disposal contractors must not remove or spread used poultry manure or litter. Hauliers must cleanse and disinfect any vehicle used for the conveyance of poultry, carcases, offal, feathers or eggs.

 (iv)   Vaccination

  In addition, the Secretary of State may order the vaccination of any species of poultry in a vaccination area. However, vaccination is not considered practical for avian influenza. The only vaccines available for this disease are inactivated, which means that birds must be dosed individually by injection. It can take up to three weeks for birds to develop protective immunity following vaccination and some poultry require two doses. Vaccination does not prevent birds from becoming infected and shedding virus. Vaccination can help suppress the clinical signs of disease and reduce the amount of virus shed by infected birds. Currently no avian influenza vaccines have marketing authority in Great Britain.


  A table top exercise is being held on 27 June, with representatives of other Government departments and agencies, devolved administrations, and Defra staff responsible for policy, operations, legal issues, communications, procurement to check overall readiness to deal with an outbreak, improve awareness of existing plans, roles and responsibilities and to identify gaps requiring further work. Already much work has been done to access the best methods of rapid and effective poultry slaughter, in particular learning from those who were involved in the outbreak in the Netherlands.


  If the strain is identified as avian or other animal Defra would be involved in licensing viral cultures into the country for research purposes and vaccine development. Human laboratories that are likely to be involved are already licensed under SAPO to work with avian flu viruses. Defra is in a position to process requirements quickly should new import licenses be required.

  As shown with SARS the Veterinary Laboratories Agency are in a position to provide reagents and sera quickly, where they have them in stock, to assist with ongoing investigations both in the UK and abroad.

  The Veterinary Laboratory Agency is the World Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza. They receive samples from around the world and routinely sequence the viruses and categorise them according to pathogenicity. The genetic basis for avian influenza virulence is fairly well understood and VLA are undertaking work to enable them to better predict what mutations are associated with changes in virulence. VLA is also looking at the possible reassortment that can occur when human and animal viruses infect the same host. With human influenza viruses we do not understand as much about which mutations increase human pathogenicity. Human virus are sequenced by the HPA and WHO Reference Laboratory at Mill Hill. VLA works closely with these laboratories.



  Defra policy is one of close liaison with other Government Departments, Agencies and other organisations.


  There are procedural mechanisms for working with the Department of Health (DH) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) within the remits of the Surveillance Group on Diseases and Infections in Animals (SGDIA) and the United Kingdom Zoonoses Group (UKZG). There is a concordat with the FSA and there is a Memorandum of Understanding between the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) and the Health Protection Agency (HPA—formerly the Public Health Laboratory Service). Identified new infections in animals are referred to DH and FSA. DH is advised by the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) and FSA are advised by the Advisory Committee on Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF). It is the responsibility of the UKZG and the SGDIA to ensure that the mechanisms work properly in the matter of collaboration and co-operation between these bodies on new and emerging zoonotic diseases.


  Defra has close contact with and takes note of advice from independent groups such as the ACMSF, the ACDP and independent review groups on Defra or Agency work.


  Defra produces a wide range of annual reports and other literature, much of which is on the Internet, including:

    —  Annual UK Zoonoses Report;

    —  Annual Report on Trends and Sources of Zoonotic Agents in Feedingstuffs, Animals, Food and Man, Annual;

    —  Annual Salmonella in Livestock Report;

    —  Annual Report on Antimicrobial Resistance in Animals;

    —  Annual Salmonella in Feedingstuffs Report;

    —  Veterinary Investigation Diagnosis Analysis Report; and

    —  Quarterly Reports of Species Groups.



  Defra implements EU policy in the area of zoonoses, and is fully compliant with Zoonoses regulations. Defra takes the precautionary view that an animal disease is zoonotic until it has evidence that it is not.


  HPA has indicated that there has been a 50 per cent cut in indigenous foodborne disease incidents, particularly in the area of Salmonella. This is encouraging since this is the only area in which Defra has indicated that controls at primary production level, in view of current knowledge, are likely to be successful. All evidence suggests that the controls in breeding flocks of poultry, improvements in hygiene, pest control and vaccination have been very beneficial and this is shown in the results of monitoring in broiler chickens for Salmonella enteriditis and Salmonella typhimurium. (Further information/background at Annex 4).


  Until outputs from research indicate clear new methods for control of VTEC 0157 and Campylobacter it may be very difficult to make substantial progress at primary production level with these organisms.

June 2003

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