Highly pathogenic avian influenza in Luxembourg: virovigilance and preparedness at LIH allowed rapid interventions

2017 - 06 - 15

Highly pathogenic avian influenza in Luxembourg: virovigilance and preparedness at LIH allowed rapid interventions

Avian influenza of the H5N8 subtype had been reintroduced in Europe since October 2016. So far, Luxembourg has been spared, until end of May when it struck the country for the first time. Viral disease experts at LIH were able to swiftly identify the viruses and thus helped the country to efficiently react to the outbreak.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses originating from Asia had already been introduced in Europe previously, but this season has been the toughest, with many more countries affected than in previous years. When birds are infected in their breeding grounds in the circumpolar region, they can carry the virus along their migratory routes in autumn to Europe and beyond, where they may infect domestic birds.

The Infectious Diseases Research Unit of the Department of Infection and Immunity at LIH has screened birds for various viruses in collaboration with the “Laboratoire de Médecine Vétérinaire de l’Etat” since the advent of bird flu in 2006. Avian influenza is the most dreaded bird disease. ‘Such outbreaks can have dramatic consequences for the poultry industry. All birds of an infected flock must be destroyed to stop the disease from spreading’, says Prof Claude Muller, Head of the Infectious Diseases Research Unit. Besides the immediate production loss for the farmers, such a disease can induce high costs due to increased food prices, surveillance and stamping out campaigns, movement and trade restrictions, and many more.

Timely diagnosis and virus characterisation at LIH allowed rapid interventions by the Ministry of Agriculture. ‘Overnight, within hours, the virus was characterised by our team as highly pathogenic H5N8 virus, similar to viruses circulating in other European countries’, says Dr Chantal Snoeck, responsible scientist for avian influenza diagnosis at LIH. The team participates every year to a Proficiency Panel testing scheme and had perfect results since the beginning in 2006, showing its preparedness. The identification of the virus as H5N8 was also confirmed by the Veterinary and Agrochemical Research Centre in Brussels.

Besides virovigilance and rapid diagnosis for the Luxembourg Ministry of Agriculture, the team investigates viruses in humans and animals in numerous regions of the world. ‘Our research focuses on a better understanding of routes of infection,  animals as virus hosts or reservoirs, and risk factors for people being exposed to those viruses. Our activities help preventing disease spread and human exposure’, emphasises Dr Snoeck. She concludes: ‘With influenza you must always expect the unexpected. Surprises are part of the lifestyle of the flu virus. It is a very dynamic virus that will never be eradicated. Preparedness and research are thus crucial to prevent disease spread amongst domestic animals and transmission to humans.’