Avian flu spreads to otters and foxes. What risk is there to humans?

This is an update on the devastating avian flu outbreak in the UK. My thanks to The Times newspaper and Rhys Blakely the science correspondent. Before I mention the report, I can remember a television news item yesterday featuring a woman who looks after a beautiful pond in a rural district. It was her job to look after the pond and she was concerned about avian flu. She was watching the wildlife using the pond to monitor the presence of avian flu and its spread to other animal species.

Otters & foxes have bird flu. Humans told to not handle sick birds
Otters & foxes have bird flu. Humans told to not handle sick birds. Image by MikeB at PoC.

Spillover

The cases of foxes and otters being found to be infected with avian flu indicates spillover from birds to other species. There are concerns about the spillover affecting humans and other mammals.

The Times reports that there is no evidence of the disease passing between mammals in the wild. As for humans, the UK government’s website states that: “Bird flu virus infections which cause disease in humans are very rare, but unfortunately when they do [occur], they can cause serious disease and deaths. Bird flu infections in people from birds usually requires very close contact with an infected bird so the risk to humans is currently considered very low.”

There is a risk nonetheless and handling a dead or dying bird suffering from avian flu would place a human at risk of contracting the disease.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency tested 66 mammals where there were large numbers of birds affected by avian flu. Four otters and five foxes have tested positive since December 2021.

They believe that they contracted the disease when eating dead birds. Cases of transmission to other animals have been found in Powys, Wales (fox) and in other mammals in County Durham, Cornwall, Cheshire, Shetland and the Inner Hebrides and Fife according to The Times.

On the march

Prof Ian Brown, director of scientific services at the aforementioned agency told the BBC: “A sick or dead wild bird contains an awful lot of virus. So [scavengers] will be exposed to very large quantities of virus. That gives a possibility for the virus to enter a host population that it doesn’t normally maintain in.”

Avian flu began in the autumn of 2021 in the UK and it is the worst on record. Winter infections lasted throughout summer 2022 and it has affected breeding colonies of seabirds. The government has been slow to react according to conservationists. The RSPB said that ministers had been “asleep at the wheel”.

Avian flu cases are being tracked and monitored by a task force and Prof Brown said: “The virus is absolutely on the march.”

Human deaths

Prof Brown also added that he was “acutely aware of the risks” of avian flu becoming a pandemic like Covid-19. Since 2021, October, when the latest outbreak started there have been five confirmed human cases of H5N1 virus with one death in China. An estimated 208 million birds have died of it across the world.

Zoonotic

Avian flu is a zoonotic disease capable of jumping from birds to other species of animal.

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Post Category: Birds > avian flu