By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS (Reuters) - A highly contagious and deadly form of avian influenza is spreading rapidly in Europe, putting the poultry industry on alert with previous outbreaks in mind that saw tens of millions of birds culled and significant economic losses.
The disease, commonly called bird flu, has been found in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden and, for the first time this week in Croatia, Slovenia and Poland, after severely hitting Russia, Kazakhstan and Israel.
The vast majority of cases are in migrating wild birds but outbreaks have been reported on farms, leading to the death or culling of at least 1.6 million chickens and ducks so far around the region.
In the Netherlands, Europe's largest exporter of chicken meat and eggs, nearly 500,000 chickens died or were culled due to the virus this autumn, and over 900,000 hens died on one single farm in Poland this week, the countries' ministries said.
"The risk of a transfer in poultry farms and more cases among wild birds is higher than in the past two years because of the massive appearance of various bird flu viruses in Europe," said a spokeswoman for the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute, Germany's federal animal disease research agency.
Russia's poultry death toll reached 1.8 million by the end of October, with nearly 1.6 million of that on one farm near Kazakhstan, data by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) showed.
The main strain found this year in Europe is H5N8, which decimated flocks in 2016/17 when the region recorded its largest outbreak in poultry and wild birds, but there were also reports of H5N5 and H5N1.
Although the risk to humans is low, the European Food Safety Agency EFSA said this week that the virus' evolution needed to be closely monitored. A strain of H5N1 has been known to spread to humans.
EU poultry industry players said they were very concerned about the latest outbreak but were now experienced in dealing with them.
"We have worked so hard to improve safety, to train breeders and improve traceability that we hope that if there are cases we will manage to contain them," said Anne Richard, head of France's poultry industry lobby ANVOL.
Most counties have raised their alert status to "high", implying that poultry and birds of all types be kept indoors or protected in order to avoid contact with wild birds.
Bird flu outbreaks like other animal diseases often prompt importing countries to impose trade restrictions.
That will add to coronavirus-related lockdowns threatening to curb year-end holiday sales.
"It's already difficult to export with the COVID, it would make it even worse," Denis Lambert, chief executive of France's largest poultry group LDC told reporters on Wednesday.
However, importing countries' approach to limit restrictions to regions affected by the virus should help soften the impact.
China, for example, has suspended imports of poultry products from four regions in Russia due to bird flu, TASS news agency reported on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris, Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Anthjonu Deutsch in Amsterdam, Nigel Hunt in London, Polina Devitt in Moscow, Marine Strauss in Brussels and Colm Fulton in Stockholm; Editing by Veronica Brown and David Evans)