South Korea Confirms Presence of H5N6 Bird Flu
South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza at a duck farm in the southwestern region of the country. The outbreak of avian influenza A, H5N6 strain, in Yeongam is the fourth confirmation of avian influenza this year in South Korea, following earlier outbreaks that led to the South Korean government raising its bird flu alert to the maximum level last month.
In a statement released on Dec. 11, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs noted the culling of 76,000 ducks across five duck farms located within a three-kilometer radius of the initial site. Heightened disinfection measures and in-depth inspections into farms in the region are underway along with the imposition of a ban on the transport of poultry in the region.
Avian Influenza A, H5N6 strain, spreads easily among birds and has the potential of causing severe illness in humans. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “human infections with the virus seem to be sporadic with no ongoing human-to-human transmission.” Influenza A(H5N6) is part of a larger family of human influenzas (“the flu”), avian influenzas (“bird flu”), and swine influenzas (“swine flu”). Like its human-only counterparts, avian and swine influenzas also have seasonal patterns of activity, with “direct or indirect exposure to infected live or dead poultry or contaminated environments” being the key cause of viruses jumping from birds or pigs to humans. The first such reported infection of humans by a non-human influenza virus was in 1997 during an outbreak of influenza A(H5N1) among poultry in Hong Kong.
South Korea’s confirmation of influenza A(H5N6) in its territory adds another incident to the growing list of influenza A(H5N6)-related outbreaks that have occurred across East Asia in 2017.
South Korea first encountered influenza A(H5N6) in Oct. 2016, which led to the start of a massive quarantine and containment campaign against the virus that ultimately culled nearly 38 million farm birds, one-fifth of its total poultry population, and caused a nationwide egg shortage. Further outbreaks in April and June 2017 combined with banning of egg and chicken imports from the United States, which reported its own outbreak of bird flu, H7 strain, led to soaring egg and poultry prices that only recently have receded back to pre-flu levels.
Taiwan encountered its first outbreak of influenza A(H5N6) in Feb. 2017, leading to authorities culling nearly 42,000 birds by the end of the outbreak in July 2017. Most recently, Taiwan reported the presence of influenza A(H5N6) in the body of a migratory bird in the south of the island on Dec. 5. However, Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture expressed that “no other incidents have been reported; therefore, livestock farmers and the public need not be concerned.”
Other East Asian countries that reported influenza A(H5N6) outbreaks this year include the Philippines and Myanmar. Since 2014, the only cases of influenza A(H5N6) in humans have all been reported by China. On Nov. 20, 2017, Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection reported a case of a human patient from Guangxi, China, infected with influenza A(H5N6) and warned travelers to China that flu activity is “expected to increase in winter.”
This outbreak of influenza A(H5N6) comes as South Korea is conducting its final preparations to host its first Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, located in the northeastern region of the country, in February 2018. Local governments in and around Pyeongchang have ordered farms close to the Olympic venue to cull their poultry in exchange for payments up to 120 million South Korean Won (about US$110,000). As the date of the Winter Olympics draws near, the South Korean government faces not only a belligerent North Korea or freezing weather, but also now the outbreak of avian influenza as possible factors depressing Olympic ticket sales.