DAEGU, South Korea––Less than six months after South Korea killed 13.8 million poultry to try to stop the spread of the H5N8 avian flu, cases have reappeared in three central and southern provinces, whetting fears that farmed birds throughout the nation may be at risk.
The re-emergence of H5N8 in North Chungcheong, Gangwon, and South Jeolla provinces once again calls into question the South Korean policy of trying to control outbreaks of highly contagious livestock diseases through culling without vaccination. Nearly 10% of the South Korean population of chickens and other domestic fowl were killed in January and February 2014, to questionable effect.
The H5N8 avian flu, unlike the H5N1 and H7N9 strains, is not known to harm humans, but has at least once been found in a dog. This indicates that H5N8 has the ability to pass from birds to mammals, and therefore could potentially pass to humans under the right conditions.
Believed to have reached domestic poultry from wild birds, after having been found in dead Baikal teal, H5N8 also afflicted chickens in Japan and North Korea in spring 2014. About 112,000 hens were culled to combat the relatively isolated Japanese outbreaks.
North Korea has also experienced outbreaks of H5N1. North Korean agriculture minister Ri Kyung-kun told the North Korean Central News Agency on April 9, 2014 that H5N1 had appeared at a chicken farm in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital city, on March 21, 2014. “We are suffering from extensive economic damage. Tens of thousands of poultry have either fallen dead or been culled,” Ri Kyung-kun reportedly said.
No further information about the H5N1 outbreak has become available.
The South Korean Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries resists using vaccination to contain livestock disease because international regulations forbid exporting diseased animals and animal products. Often vaccinated animals test positive for exposure to whatever disease is targeted, and there is no reliable way to distinguish vaccinated animals from infected animals.
Seeking to protect South Korean exports, officials and farm workers have in recent decades killed multi-millions of pigs, chickens, and other animals, often by live burial, in “stamping out” exercises meant to eradicate avian influenzas and foot-and-mouth disease. But the mass culls have not achieved lasting success.
In 2010-2011 the South Korean Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries did finally turn to vaccination to control foot-and-mouth disease––which does not pass to humans from hooved livestock, but causes the animals to lose weight and give less milk. Foot-and-mouth disease has not recurred since then in South Korea, but continues to afflict cattle and pigs in North Korea. North Korea has not accepted South Korean offers of help in stopping the foot-and-mouth outbreaks.
(See also “Spillover: Animal infections & the next human pandemic,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-yu, and “South Korea kills 1.6 million pigs, cattle, & dogs in fight against foot and mouth disease,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-yG.)