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UK News Bird flu outbreak being closely monitored as if virus mutates ‘it could pose threat to human health’

05:20  25 november  2022
05:20  25 november  2022 Source:   inews.co.uk

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The growing bird flu outbreak is being closely monitored as if the virus mutates it could pose a “significant threat” to human health, a government adviser told i.

While the current risk to humans is low, experts are concerned a mutation would allow avian flu to become airborne and transmissible between people.

It is also understood that the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has confirmed cases of bird flu being transmitted to wild mammals, including foxes and sea life such as seals and dolphins in and around the UK, as well as across Europe and in the US.

“Avian influenza represents a significant ongoing threat to animal and human health,” Professor Wendy Barclay, head of department of infectious disease at Imperial College London, told i.

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“We are monitoring for signs of the virus mutating and potentially becoming airborne. That’s how pandemics happen.

“We’ve had four flu pandemics in the world in the last 100 years, and they have all mutated.

“It’s a roll of the dice if this current strain mutates. The more virus there is the more likely it is to mutate.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re concerned because, without a doubt, there is a lot of virus out there in the wild.”

Leading influenza virologist Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, who sits on the Government FluMap panel, says “it’s a roll of the dice” that will decide if bird flu mutates to become airborne and highly transmissible to humans (Photo: Imperial College London) © Provided by The i Leading influenza virologist Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, who sits on the Government FluMap panel, says “it’s a roll of the dice” that will decide if bird flu mutates to become airborne and highly transmissible to humans (Photo: Imperial College London)

In June, the Government set up a consortium of scientific institutions to battle against the worst outbreak of bird flu ever seen, which has already led to the culling of almost four million birds such as chickens, ducks and turkeys in the UK and almost 100 million birds worldwide.

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The group, known as FluMap, includes APHA scientists, officials from the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), representatives from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and independent university scientists.

Professor Barclay, who is a member of FluMap, says: “It’s important to emphasise that at the moment it’s very hard for the virus to be transmitted to humans.

“Health officials involved in culling birds take a lot of precautions as they have a high exposure and catching it can be very harmful.

“One of the things that FluMap is checking out is whether or not this virus is a little bit more stable than previous ones, and that might be why it has been hanging around since the summer and more than we’ve seen before.”

Official figures from the World Health Organisation show that there have been 868 cases of human infection with the H5N1 avian flu virus over the past 20 years. The Government puts the mortality rate of people contracting bird flu at 60 per cent, compared to a death rate for the peak of Covid-19 of just two per cent.

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Professor Barclay said: “If the virus underwent the mutations it needs to become transmissible to humans, then that 60 per cent fatality rate might go down because there is a balance with viruses where, in order to become transmissible, they have to change their nature and usually that means the fatality rate goes down, but it doesn’t always.”

Almost four million birds have already been culled since the new strain of bird flu hit the UK over the summer (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty) © Provided by The i Almost four million birds have already been culled since the new strain of bird flu hit the UK over the summer (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty)

Only one person is known to have caught bird flu in the UK. In December last year, Alan Gosling of Buckfastleigh in Devon, contracted the disease from the rescue ducks on his bird sanctuary. Mr Gosling survived the disease and was given the all-clear in January.

A spokeswoman for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said: “The current evidence suggests that the strain of avian influenza currently circulating in birds does not spread easily to or between people.

“However, viruses constantly evolve and that is why UKHSA and APHA have monitoring in place to ensure we pick up any evidence that the virus has spread from birds to humans.

“Although the evidence suggests that the current strain of avian influenza does not spread easily from birds to people, it is important that people do not touch dead or sick birds.”

UKHSA is encouraging the public to report findings of a single dead bird of prey (including owls), three or more dead wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks) or gulls, or five or more dead birds of any species to their local authority.

Despite being hard to catch from dead birds, health officials dealing with the culling of infected farmers’ stock are taking extreme precautions, including taking prophylactic Tamiflu and wearing personal protective equipment before attending outbreaks.

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