Bird flu: How common is the virus among humans and what are the symptoms?

Person diagnosed with rare case in southwestern England provokes alarm

Ellie Abraham,Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 06 January 2022 15:56
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A person in southwest England has been diagnosed as suffering from a “very rare” case of bird flu, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has announced.

The individual concerned became infected after “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 of their contacts have been traced and there is no evidence that others have become infected, according to officials, who said the person was “currently well and self-isolating”, the infected birds had been culled and that the World Health Organisation has been notified.

Bird to human transmission of bird flu - also known as avian flu - is rare and has only occurred a small number of times in the UK, with the risk described as “low” and the UKHSA insisting the present instance was simply one of “routine monitoring” but that the public were reminded not to touch dead birds.

The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said: “While avian influenza is highly contagious in birds, this is a very rare event and is very specific to the circumstances on this premises.”

Last month, the chief vet warned of a “phenomenal level” of bird flu in Britain following the culling of tens of thousands of farmed birds.

What is bird flu?

According to the NHS, avian influenza is an infectious type of flu that spreads among our feathered friends but only rarely infects humans.

There are multiple strains of bird flu and most do not infect human beings at all.

Strains that can infect humans do not do so easily, though there have been some cases and deaths linked to infection from bird flu.

How does it spread to humans?

Avian influenza is spread to humans through close contact with an infected animal, dead or alive. It is spread through bodily fluids such as faeces, saliva and nasal droplets.

Touching an infected bird or coming into contact with its droppings or bedding, or preparing its meat for consumption, can cause a human to become infected.

According to the NHS, places such as livestock markets in areas where there has been an outbreak may put you at greater risk of catching bird flu.

However, you cannot get it from eating fully cooked meat or eggs from an infected bird, according to the health service.

Can it be transmitted between humans and how?

While it is not easily transmissible for bird flu to pass from human to human, it has happened before. Like normal flu, it is spread through close personal contact where the virus is present in droplets in the air.

Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases and director of the Pandemic Sciences Centre at the University of Oxford, told The Independent: “Most of the unusual avian or bird flu viruses that crossover are not very well adapted to humans so they tend to just cause the odd case now and again, with no onward transmission.

“So, in this case, you would want to closely monitor the close contacts of this person. But, the likelihood is, there’ll be no onward transmission. We have to watch these very carefully because sometimes you do get an animal virus that is well-adapted to humans or becomes adapted to humans and then it is a pandemic risk.”

What are the symptoms in people?

Symptoms of bird flu are similar to other types of flu. According to the NHS, they can include:

  • High temperature or feeling hot or shivery
  • Muscle aches
  • A headache
  • A cough

Symptoms may take as long as between three and five days after infection to present.

If you are at risk of having been affected, some early symptoms of infection may include:

  • Diarrhoea and sickness
  • Stomach ache
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Chest pain
  • Bleeding nose and/or gums

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