Don’t assume bird flu risk to humans will remain low, WHO warns

The risk of bird flu spreading in humans is low at the moment – but it doesn’t mean it will necessarily stay that way, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.

H5N1 influenza – commonly known as bird flu – has cropped up in mammals around the world, from grizzly bears to dolphins and domestic cats.

Last week it was confirmed bird flu has spilled to mammals in the UK, with otters and foxes testing positive for the virus.

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing that the recent reports of infections in mink, otters and sealions “need to be monitored closely”.

He said the risk to humans remained low, noting that human cases have been rare since the flu strain emerged in 1996.

“But we cannot assume that will remain the case and we must prepare for any change in the status quo,” Dr Tedros said.

The current outbreak started in October 2021, sweeping through poultry farms and wild birds. The virus is highly infectious and causes rapid illness and death in birds.

Whole flocks have to be culled to try to curb the spread, with the number of dead birds now in the millions.

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Since the outbreak started there have been five cases of H5N1 in humans worldwide, including one in the UK and one death in China.

In the last 20 years, there have been 868 cases and 457 deaths, according to the WHO.

In October last year, mink started dying of bird flu at a farm in Spain.

They weren’t the first mammals to contract the virus, but the cases differed this time as it appeared to be spreading between the animals, from pen to pen.

In most instances where mammals become ill – including the otters and foxes in the UK – it’s likely because they ate infected dead wild birds or their droppings.

Dr Tedros said people were advised not to touch dead or sick wild animals and to instead report them to local and national authorities, who were monitoring the situation.

The WHO also called on countries to strengthen surveillance in settings where humans and animals interact.

“WHO is also continuing to engage with manufacturers to make sure that, if needed, supplies of vaccines and antivirals would be available for global use,” he said.

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