Bird flu: Person in south-west England confirmed to have avian influenza in UK first

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Bird flu: Person in south-west England confirmed to have avian influenza in UK first

A person in the south-west of England has been confirmed to have contracted avian flu, the UK Health Security Agency announced on Thursday.

The agency said the person had been in close contact with infected birds and there was no evidence of onward transmission.

“The person acquired the infection from very close, regular contact with a large number of infected birds, which they kept in and around their home over a prolonged period of time,” the UKHSA said.

“All contacts of the individual, including those who visited the premises, have been traced and there is no evidence of onward spread of the infection to anyone else. The individual is currently well and self-isolating. The risk to the wider public from avian flu continues to be very low.”

Some strains of bird flu can pass from birds to people, but this is extremely rare, according to the UKHSA.

It usually requires close contact with an infected bird, so the risk to humans is generally considered very low.

Human-to-human transmission of bird flu is also very rare, the organisation said.

The case was detected after the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) identified an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in a flock of birds.

The infected birds have all been culled.

As a precaution, the UKHSA swabbed the person involved and detected low levels of flu.

Further lab analysis showed that the virus was the “H5” type found in birds.

The UKHSA said that, at this point, it has not been possible to confirm that this is a H5N1 infection (the strain that is currently circulating in birds in the UK).

But the UKHSA has notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a precaution.

It said this is the first human case of this strain in the UK, although there have been cases elsewhere globally.

Professor Isabel Oliver, chief scientific officer at the UKHSA, said: “While the risk of avian flu to the general public is very low, we know that some strains do have the potential to spread to humans and that’s why we have robust systems in place to detect these early and take action.

“Currently there is no evidence that this strain detected in the UK can spread from person to person, but we know that viruses evolve all the time and we continue to monitor the situation closely.

“We have followed up all of this individual’s contacts and have not identified any onward spread.”

In December, environment secretary George Eustice revealed the UK had been hit by a record outbreak of avian flu that led to 500,000 captive birds being culled in previous months.

He told MPs an avian influenza prevention zone had been declared across the UK at the start of November, requiring strict biosecurity measures and all birds to be kept indoors.

On Wednesday, the World Organisation for Animal Health warned a wave of bird flu in Asia and Europe had a greater risk of spreading to humans because of a high number of variants.

The spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza has raised concern among governments and the poultry industry after previous outbreaks led to the culling of tens of millions of birds and trade restrictions.

“This time the situation is more difficult and more risky because we see more variants emerge, which make them harder to follow,” director general Monique Eloit told Reuters.

“Eventually the risk is that it mutates or that it mixes with a human flu virus that can be transmitted between humans then suddenly it takes on a new dimension,” she added.

Fifteen countries had reported outbreaks of bird flu in poultry between October and the end of December, mostly the H5N1 strain. Italy was the worst hit in Europe with 285 outbreaks and nearly four million birds culled, data showed.

Staff from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and Danish Emergency Management Agency dispose of thousands of turkeys at a farm near the village of Ruds Vedby (Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Ima)
Staff from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and Danish Emergency Management Agency dispose of thousands of turkeys at a farm near the village of Ruds Vedby (Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Ima)

Outbreaks generally start in the autumn, when the infection is spread by migrating wild birds.

For contacts of an infected person who have the highest risk, the UKHSA contacts them daily to see if they have developed symptoms.

People are also offered anti-viral treatment after exposure to infected birds to stop the virus reproducing in their body.

Swabs are also carried out on people even if they do not have symptoms.

Professor Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, said: “This is clearly going to be big news but the key thing is that human infections with H5N1 are really rare (fewer than 1,000 worldwide since 2003) and they almost always occur as a result of direct, long-term contact with poultry.

“It can result in a nasty infection for the individual concerned but there has never been any evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of H5N1 so at present I wouldn't consider this to be a significant public health risk.”

Paul Wigley, professor of avian infection and immunity at the University of Liverpool, said: “Whilst avian influenza has the potential to be transmitted from poultry to humans, it is very rare and, as in this case, usually due to close and long-term contact with infected birds.

“Avian influenza such as the H5 serotype is largely adapted to infect birds and so is very unlikely to be transmitted from person to person.

“The advice given by APHA and UKHSA over contact with infected birds is sensible and should be followed. The risk of wider infection in the general public remains low.”

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