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Bird flu outbreak in northern Israel ebbs; no humans harmed, officials say

Agriculture Ministry notes ‘encouraging recovery’ over past two days; cleanup efforts at Hula Lake Reserve expected to finish next week ahead of migration season

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

An outbreak of avian flu that has killed vast numbers of domestic and wildfowl in recent weeks in northern Israel has likely reached its peak and began to abate over the past week, officials said Friday.

Experts had warned the danger of the bird flu jumping to humans was a serious source of concern. But according to government officials, those fears were not realized.

The Agriculture Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office announced that there was no indication humans were harmed as a result of the H5N1 virus spread, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The offices said over the past two days an “encouraging recovery” was noted, the report said.

According to Kan, the outbreak affected 20 chicken coop complexes — mostly in northern Israel, which include around one million hens — as well as 15 bird habitats.

In the Hula Lake Reserve, some 5,000 cranes died of the disease. The grim job of collecting crane carcasses from the lake by the ministry’s staff and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority was expected to end on Monday, the report said.

Dead cranes who were infected with avian influenza (bird flu) in the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, northern Israel, January 2, 2022. (Moraz Brom/Flash90)

Monitoring and disinfection efforts continue at the reserve, ahead of an upcoming migration season, according to Kan.

The outbreak began last month in the Hula Valley and the community of Margaliot in the upper Galilee, next to the Lebanese border.

In Margaliot alone more than half a million egg-laying chickens have died or been culled. All the poultry sheds are infected and have been sealed off by inspectors. Agriculture Minister Oded Forer said he had allowed untaxed imports of eggs and that there would not be a shortage.

Filthy conditions at a northern Israeli egg farm, where chickens live in cages above piles of their own excrement. (Screenshot)

Most bird flu strains don’t infect humans. However, four strains have caused concern: H5N1 since 1997, H7N9 since 2013, H5N6 since 2014 and H5N8 since 2016.

Israel has seen several outbreaks since the fall.

The first outbreak was at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, according to a notice sent out to poultry breeders on October 18, 2021 by the ministry’s veterinary service. Noting that avian flu was sometimes carried by wild birds — Israel sits on the annual migration route between Europe, Asia and Africa — it called for the immediate transfer of all organic, free-range and other outdoor chickens to closed facilities.

By November 3, 2021, the virus was also found at Kibbutz Maayan Zvi, near Zichron Yaakov, and as of November 21, it had spread to a duck farm in Kfar Baruch in the Jezreel Valley and a turkey farm in Ein Zurim, south of Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel.

Authorities have said the outbreak among chickens is partially due to farmers using primitive coops, unsanitary conditions and poor monitoring or reporting by farmers in Margaliot.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg called the outbreak “the worst blow to wildlife in the country’s history.”

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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