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France is sinking into an avian flu epidemic of unprecedented scale

Ducks slaughtered on a farm in Lohitzun-Oyhercq (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) on January 27, 2022.

“We have a Damocles sword over our heads. Every morning, when we enter the building, we are afraid of discovering sick chickens”, testifies Pascal Sachot, breeder in Sèvremont, in Vendée. He holds his breath all the more as the farms of two of his close neighbors have just been affected by the avian flu epidemic. Of its three buildings, each of which potentially houses 5,000 animals, one was unoccupied, the other was emptied two weeks ago. In the third, the chickens are almost mature. “We are going to take swabs, if the tests are negative for the H5N1 virus, the poultry will go to the slaughterhouse normally”, explains Mr. Sachot.

The H5N1 virus has, in fact, fallen on the Vendée at the end of February. First detected in a few poultry farms near the town of Maché, it quickly spread. A month later, the authorities counted 463 outbreaks in Vendée, double those listed in the Landes, until then the French department most affected by this new epizootic of avian flu. The virus has also spread in Loire-Atlantique and Maine-et-Loire.

Forty cases a day

The dazzling speed of spread in the Vendée region took the health authorities by surprise. “There are four professional teams to euthanize sick animals. They were overwhelmed as the rate of cases reached nearly 40 per day. Some breeders waited ten days with the dead animals in the buildings,” says Mr. Sachot. Christian Drouin, breeder in Essarts-en-Bocage, has, him, had to do the dirty work”as he says. “Friday March 18, I saw a high mortality rate in the building where I raise 18,000 chickens. The veterinarian confirmed to me that the farm was affected by the avian influenza virus. There was no euthanasia team available. The disorganization is complete on the ground. On Wednesday I had to close the ventilation to kill the animals. And this morning, with neighbors, we picked up the dead and buried them on the farm, covering them with lime. All this without equipment. I react quite badly, it’s very difficult to bear “says Mr. Drouin.

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“Nearly 6 to 7 million poultry will be destroyed in Vendée and in the neighboring areas affected. If we add the depopulation measures that have been decided, we will reach 10 million. In forty years of career, I have never experienced this. The situation is very worrying for poultry,” emphasizes Gilles Huttepain, former director of the upstream division of the Sarthois group LDC and vice-president of the poultry inter-branch organization Anvol. The choice was made to depopulate the farms around 250 points considered strategic, as they house the hatcheries where the chicks and ducklings are raised and where the genetic heritage of the parental lines is maintained.

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