What is Bird Flu?

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Experts have warned the bird flu victim who died last week was infected with a strain of this virus that had mutations that made it better adapted to human cells. On Thursday, health authorities warned that an 11-year-old girl from the rural southeastern province of Prey Veng in Cambodia died from bird flu, marking the country’s first fatality from the virus in years. The girl fell ill on February 16, suffering a fever of up to 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit), along with coughing and throat pain, and died shortly after being diagnosed on Wednesday.

Dr Erik Karlsson led the team at the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia, which decoded the genetic sequence of the virus found in the girl, and discovered that the strain was different from samples taken from birds. 

He told Sky News: “There are some indications that this virus has gone through a human.

“Any time these viruses get into a new host they’ll have certain changes that allow them to replicate a little bit better or potentially bind to the cells in our respiratory tract a little bit better.”

Dr Karlsson, who focuses on emerging infectious diseases, believed that the mutations were unlikely to have occurred in the girl, but rather they existed in a “cloud” of viruses with random genetic changes inside birds.

Within this vast network of viruses in the cloud, he noted that some of these viruses can jump into a new host, which will allow them to survive better and become the dominant population.

Fortunately, he noted that that the virus was still predominantly affecting birds, and had yet to fully adapt to humans.

Sequencing the virus, the researchers found that the virus found in the girl was the variant of H5N1, which is endemic in wild birds and poultry in Cambodia, and not the strain which has spread rapidly around the world and begun to infect some mammals.

However, Dr Karlsson warned against downplaying the threat of the variant in Cambodia, saying: “This was a zoonotic spillover [of a virus infecting a new species] and needs to be treated with the utmost concern.

Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, normally spreads in poultry and wasn’t deemed a threat to people until a 1997 outbreak among visitors to live poultry markets in Hong Kong.

According to the NHS, the main symptoms of bird flu can appear very quickly and include a very high temperature or feeling hot or shivery, aching muscles, headaches, and a cough or shortness of breath.

It generally takes three to five days for the first symptoms to appear after being infected, with other early symptoms including diarrhoea, sickness, stomach pain, chest pain, bleeding from the nose and gums and conjunctivitis.

Within days of symptoms appearing, it’s possible to develop more severe complications such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Globally, the World Health Organisation estimated that there have been about 873 human infections of the H5N1 strain of the virus, of which 458 have resulted in deaths.

While the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says there is “no evidence so far that the virus is getting better at infecting humans or other mammals”, the health officials are now modelling scenarios of human transmission, looking at pandemic possibilities.

The UKHSA is considering a mild scenario, where the infection-fatality rate is similar to coronavirus at about 0.25 percent, and a more severe scenario similar to the 1918 outbreak, where about 2.5 percent of people who caught the virus died.

To illustrate this, one in 400 people with the virus would die under the mild scenario, but the severe scenario could mean that one in 40 infected people would die.

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