Brazil confirms first ever avian flu cases in wild birds

A poultry farm in Castelnau-Tursan

By Ana Mano, Carolina Pulice and Peter Frontini

(Reuters) -Brazil, the world's top chicken exporter, has for the first time confirmed Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) cases but only in wild birds, the Agriculture Ministry said on Monday.

Two cases were detected in wild birds and should not trigger a ban on imports of Brazilian poultry products as per guidelines from the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH), according to the Brazilian government.

The avian influenza virus can kill entire flocks of birds and cause losses for the farming sector. Brazil's chicken exports rose by 27% last year to $9.76 billion as other countries reeled from a global outbreak of the virus, yet the South American country had never registered a case until now.

The Brazilian government confirmed the detection of H5N1 subtype of the influenza virus in two marine birds, of the Thalasseus acuflavidus species, on the coast of Brazil's southeastern state of Espirito Santo.

Brazil's main poultry producing states are in the far south and center-west. However, Espirito Santo is Brazil's third largest egg producing state, according to meat lobby ABPA. It does not export eggs but sells them in the domestic market.

Epidemiological surveillance services will be intensified to detect potential cases in wild and commercial animals in the area close to where the cases were confirmed, a government source said.

The agriculture ministry said that because the cases were detected in wild animals, Brazil's status "as a country free of HPAI" was not affected.

Miguel Gularte, CEO of Brazil-based BRF, the world's largest chicken exporting company, told a press conference he was not surprised by the case of highly pathogenic avian influenza, adding the company was prepared for any scenario.

The executive reiterated WOAH's recommendations that no members of that organization would impose import bans because of cases detected in wild animals.

BRF's Gularte also noted the company relies on Brazil’s "robust" animal health services to prevent and contain any potential threats to industrial poultry farms.

The main importers of Brazil's chicken products in April included China, Japan, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

China has banned imports of poultry from nearly 40 U.S. states due to outbreaks of bird flu on commercial poultry farms.

Brazil's neighbor Argentina suspended its poultry exports in late February after recording the first case of bird flu in its poultry industry in southern Rio Negro province but resumed exports from bird flu free areas in late March.

A record number of chicken, turkeys and other birds have died in outbreaks in the U.S., Europe and Britain, and the virus is spreading in South America, Africa, and Asia.

Losses of poultry flocks have contributed to record high prices for eggs and turkey meat in some places.

While humans can contract H5N1, cases remain very rare, and global health officials have said the risk to humans is low.

(Reporting by Carolina Pulice and Peter Frontini; Writing by Ana Mano; Editing by Isabel Woodford, Aurora Ellis, David Gregorio and Himani Sarkar)