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Bird flu detected in Israel in 2nd case within days

Nature authorities closely monitoring wild birds, weighing whether to stop feeding cranes in northern Israel to prevent crowding, avoid risk of last year’s mass infection

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A 'Keep Out' sign at Moshav Beit Herut in  central Israel warns of a bird flu outbreak, November 28, 2022. (Agriculture Ministry)
A 'Keep Out' sign at Moshav Beit Herut in central Israel warns of a bird flu outbreak, November 28, 2022. (Agriculture Ministry)

Bird flu was discovered Monday at a turkey farm in central Israel, the second incidence of the disease being found in Israel in eight days.

The flu was identified in one of seven coops in Moshav Beit Herut and a quarantine was imposed on all poultry within a 10-kilometer (six-mile) radius.

The first outbreak of the disease this season was discovered last Tuesday among turkeys in Kibbutz Shluhot in northern Israel’s Beit Shean Valley.

In both cases, the strain — H5N1 — is the same one that lead to the culling of hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys last year and the deaths of up to 7,000 wild cranes, mainly at Israel’s Hula Lake Park in the north of the country.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is the only body authorized to feed wild creatures.

Over the years, it has allowed the feeding of pelicans and cranes at Hula Lake Park to keep the tens of thousands of birds that arrive each year away from farmers’ fields and fishponds.

Great white pelicans swim at a water reservoir at Mishmar HaSharon in the Hefer Valley, November 4, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)

The result is that the birds crowd together in a way that may, it is feared, lead the virus to spread more quickly.

This year, too, northern farmers have requested that the birds be fed.

Last year, the disease killed around 500 pelicans that arrived toward the end of the migration season and stopped in the Beit Shean area south of the Sea of Galilee.

Last month, the INPA stopped feeding pelicans in the north, where most commercial fishponds have closed, leaving them to forage for food themselves.

However, it continued to provide fish in several water bodies in the Sharon area in central Israel, not only because the fish breeding industry is still substantial in the region, but because the birds will only fly onwards to Africa when their bellies are full. This is their last food station before they enter the Negev Desert.

Most of the pelicans that fly through Israel are already in Africa by this time of year, with just a few thousand still lingering in the Sharon region.

Gray Cranes at the Hula Lake Park in the Hula valley in northern Israel, November 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/ Menahem Kahana)

But large numbers of cranes are still in the country, and the INPA has not yet decided what to do about feeding them.

An INPA spokeswoman said there was “definite concern” that feeding could lead to a repeat of last year’s tragedy, should bird flu infect the cranes this season too.

“We are in talks with the farmers in the Hula Valley and are considering what steps to take in light of bird flu’s appearance in the two poultry farms,” she said. “We are certainly worried that feeding could lead to a situation similar to last year.”

Inbar Shlomit Rubin, who manages the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund’s Hula Lake Reserve, said she was not aware of any scientifically-proven link between feeding the cranes and infection with bird flu.

She added that some 30,000 cranes had been infected with the often fatal H5N1 strain in northern Israel last year, but that most had recovered — possibly because they had been fed and had not needed to expend energy on finding food.

“We know that bird flu likes cold and damp and can survive for more than a year in water that is below 4°C (7.2°F),” she went on.

“The birds that are infected are water birds that either sleep together in the water or look for food in the water together.”

Rubin said that staff at the park were constantly monitoring the birds and had not found any signs of the flu so far.

Should the disease be identified, the site will immediately start following a special protocol, she added. This includes adding as much water as possible to the lake to dilute the virus, and ensuring that all vehicle tires and footwear are constantly washed.

Agriculture Ministry staff work in protective gear to clean up dead cranes infected with Avian Influenza (bird flu) from the Hula Lake Reserve in northern Israel, January 2, 2022. (Moraz Brom/Flash90)

Bird flu has swept the globe this year, leading to the deaths of 97 million birds worldwide, according to the UK’s House of Lords Library. This includes a record 3.8 million birds in the UK.

At least 50.54 million birds have died this year in the US, according to the US Department of Agriculture, also setting a record, Axios reported Sunday.

Israel provides a major migration route, raising fears every year that infected specimens will bring the deadly virus in.

The current migration season will end in a few weeks.

The Agriculture Ministry is urging consumers to only buy eggs from reputable sources and to ensure that both eggs and chicken or turkey meat are thoroughly cooked before eating.

According to a report by the World Health Organization earlier this month, there were 868 cases of human infection with the H5N1 strain between 2003 — when it was first detected outside China — and October 21 this year. Of these, 456 were fatal.

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