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PANDEMIC 2.0? Israel faces spreading bird flu outbreak; 5,000 cranes dead, 90,000 others quarantined

Bennett urges close monitoring of the spreading disease and closing some nature reserves to visitors

Removing the carcasses of wild cranes killed by avian flu at the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in northern Israel, Dec. 27. (Photo: Hadas Kahaner/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Israel is facing a spread of the avian flu among its birds, which has so far killed more than 5,000 migratory cranes in northern Israel. Farms have reportedly killed over half a million chickens in a national effort to contain the bird flu. 

Around 90,000 turkeys have been isolated at three bird flu centers and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has instructed local authorities to closely monitor the spreading disease and to close some nature reserves to visitors. There are so far no reports of infections among humans in Israel. 

Bennett held a security meeting on the bird flu outbreak on Monday. The prime minister consulted with the National Security Council on effective responses to bringing the outbreak under control. 

Israeli Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg described the bird flu outbreak as one of the worst wildlife disasters in the Jewish state’s history. 

"This is the worst blow to wildlife in the country's history. The extent of the damage is still unclear," Zandberg said in a tweet. 

The bird virus could reportedly be lethal if it infects humans. The good news is that most variants of the avian flu do not transmit easily to humans. However, Yossi Leshem, one of Israel’s leading ornithologists warned that the bird flu could mutate just like the ongoing coronavirus. 

“There could be a mutation that also infects people and turns into a mass disaster,” Leshem said in an interview with The Daily Beast. Leshem is an internationally renowned Tel Aviv University zoologist and heads the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun close to Jerusalem. 

Shalom Bar Tal, a veteran wildlife photographer warned that the bid flu could potentially have global implications just like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It could turn into an ecological disaster no less significant than the corona epidemic,” said Bar Tal. 

Despite the many dead birds, Uri Naveh, a senior scientist at the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, warned on Monday that the outbreak has still not been brought under control. 

“Many of the birds are dead in the middle of the water body so it’s difficult for them to be taken out,” Naveh said

Naveh said authorities were looking into alternative solutions as the clean-up work was progressing slower than expected. 

“We are trying to see if there’s any other solutions,” he said

Many carcasses of cranes have been collected in the Hula Nature Reserve in northern Israel, the epicenter of the outbreak. Due to its geographic location, Israel is an important transit point for half a billion birds migrating every year between Europe and Africa. In this context, the Hula Nature Reserve has a unique ecosystem with a marsh and a lake that attracts the birds, making it one of the world’s leading bird watching spots and an important wet habitat in the Middle East region. 

Approximately half a million migrating cranes pass through the Hula Nature Reserve every year and some 30,000 stay there over the winter. 

Yaron Michaeli, spokesman for the Hula Nature Park, stressed that there were intense efforts to quickly remove the carcasses so the disease would not spread to other animals in the area.

Despite the serious situation, Michaeli expressed cautious optimism that the number of dead cranes appears to have stabilized in recent days. 

“This is a good sign. They might be starting to get over this. We hope very much,” Michaeli said. 

Since more than 500,000 poultry have been culled as a precaution against the bird flu, Israeli authorities warn of a potentially looming egg shortage amounting to some 14 million eggs. Consequently, authorities are considering importing eggs from abroad to offset the expected shortage. 

Israel’s Agriculture Minister Oded Forer stressed the need to proactively increase biological safety among chicken coops in Israel. 

“We need to bring the chicken coops in the State of Israel to a state of high biological safety so as not to be in such a developing and ongoing event next year as well,” Forer said. 

Read more: HEALTH
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