WHO warns world ‘must prepare’ for bird flu outbreak

What is Bird Flu?

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued an alarming warning over a severe bird flu outbreak which has jumped from birds to mammals, urging the world to prepare. While the risk to humans remains low at present, health chiefs have stressed that this could all change. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that cases of avian influenza in minks, otters, foxes and sea lions reported in recent weeks require close monitoring and is urging countries to take action.

He said that “for the moment, the WHO assesses the risk to humans as low”, adding that there has only been “rare and non-sustained” transmission to and between humans.

However, Mr Ghebreyesus added: “But we cannot assume that will remain the case and we must prepare for any change in the status quo.”

The WHO chief urged countries to ramp up surveillance of areas where humans and animals interact. The organisation is working to ensure that supplies of vaccines and antivirals are made available if the situation worsens. Mr Ghebreyesus added that the WHO is in discussions with manufacturers.

WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said that four people were infected by the avian flu virus (H5N1) last year, with one case leading to death.

Mr Lindmeier warned that avian flu is an ongoing risk to human health as it has pandemic potential, meaning strong disease surveillance is crucial.

He said: “Surveillance in animals is important to catch any changes in the virus that have implications for human health.”

So far, there have been 200 cases recorded in mammals, including grizzly bears, mink, dolphins and seals. The disease has killed over 200 million birds, but in the UK it has also been linked to foxes and otters.

This comes after the H5N1 strain of avian flu virus was detected in a mink farm outbreak in the Galicia region of Spain. Investigations found mink-to-mink transmission could have occurred at the farm, although staff working there did not test positive for the virus.

However, the outbreak at the Carral mink farm in October 2022 gave the first indication that the flu can spread from one infected mammal to another.

Genetic sequencing revealed the animals were infected with a new variant of H5N1, which has genetic material from a strain found in gulls.

It also has a genetic change that could increase the ability of some animal-flu viruses to reproduce in mammals.

According to the WHO, there have been almost 870 cases of human infection with the avian influenza H5N1 virus reported from 21 countries over the last 20 years. Up to 457 of these cases were fatal. This indicates a relatively high case fatality rate in people who become infected.

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In the UK, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has tested up to 66 mammals so far and found nine otters and foxes were positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1. It also tested seals for the virus.

The animals testing positive are believed to have been fed with dead or sick wild birds infected with Avian flu. While the animals testing positive had a mutation of the virus, making it more likely to infect mammals, there was no evidence of the virus jumping between mammals, unlike at the Spanish mink farm.

However, Prof Ian Brown, APHA’s director of scientific services, told BBC News: “The virus is absolutely on the march. And it’s almost remarkable – it’s a single strain. This global spread is a concern. We do need globally to look at new strategies, those international partnerships, to get on top of this disease. If we don’t solve the problem across the globe, we’re going to continue to have that risk.”

But Dr Meera Chand, incident director for avian influenza at UKHSA, said: “Latest evidence suggests that the avian influenza viruses currently circulating in birds do not spread easily to people. We remain vigilant for any evidence of changing risk.

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