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An update on avian flu

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Ducks flying over a pond

[Blog updated 2nd June 2023]

UKHSA continues to work closely with partners including Defra and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to assess the potential risk to human health from avian influenza (Influenza A H5N1) and to improve our understanding of the virus.

This work includes carrying out enhanced surveillance of H5N1 in mammals, which allows us to monitor for any changes in the virus genome that would make it easier to infect people. Our findings are available to read in our technical briefings.

In this blog, we explore the key findings from this research and outline the biosecurity plans and monitoring measures that have been put in place in the UK. We also summarise the current guidance for the public and bird keepers on what action to take if they find sick or dead birds.

The current situation

While H5N1 is primarily a disease affecting birds, the virus has been found in some mammals in the UK over the last few months. Global reports also show some evidence of limited transmission between mammals. These findings follow record instances of H5N1 in both wild and captive birds during 2021-22.

While there are sporadic cases of the infection in humans, the evidence suggests that the virus does not spread easily to people. However, viruses constantly change, and we are alert to any changes in the viral genome that would make it more likely to do so.

What action should the public take?

Wild birds are susceptible to a range of diseases and injuries and not all dead birds will have been infected with avian influenza. However, our advice is to not touch or pick up any dead or visibly sick birds.

Members of the public should submit an online report or call the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77 if they find dead wild birds. Currently, in Great Britain, the public are encouraged to report findings of:

  • a single dead bird of prey (including owls)
  • a single dead wild waterfowl (swan, goose or duck) or gull,
  • five or more dead birds of any species.

Some of these birds will then be collected and tested to help us understand the risk posed to poultry and other captive birds through understanding how the disease is distributed geographically and in different types of wild bird. Reports to the Defra Helpline of found dead wild birds are triaged and not all birds will be collected.

Further information on Defra’s approach to wild bird reports can be found here. If avian influenza is confirmed in wild birds, UKHSA put in place measures to reduce the risk to people who have encountered the dead birds.

If you are a bird keeper, you must keep a close watch on your birds for signs of disease and maintain good biosecurity at all times. If you suspect any type of avian influenza in poultry or captive birds, you must report it immediately by calling in England the DEFRA Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301. In Wales, contact 0300 303 8268. In Scotland, contact your local Field Services Office.

For information on the latest situation in your area, visit the following pages, all of which are regularly updated:

What happens when the disease is confirmed in poultry or captive birds?

The UK has a comprehensive biosecurity plan and monitoring in place to prevent the disease spreading. When avian influenza is confirmed or suspected in poultry or other captive birds, disease control zones are put in place around the infected premises to prevent onward spread. Within these zones, a range of restrictions can apply.

As part of the response to avian influenza incidents, the UKHSA has measures in place to monitor individuals who have had concerning exposures to confirmed and suspected cases of avian influenza in birds to monitor their health and give preventative antiviral drugs where appropriate to reduce the chances of them becoming unwell. People who develop flu like symptoms during their monitoring period are swabbed and samples are tested for avian influenza.

What about the risk to humans?

The latest evidence suggests that the avian influenza viruses we are seeing circulating in birds in the UK do not spread easily to people. However, viruses constantly evolve, and we remain vigilant for any evidence of changing risk to the population, as well as working with partners to address gaps in the scientific evidence.

We are also undertaking a programme looking for any evidence of asymptomatic infections in people exposed to infected birds. People who have had contact with an infected bird or mammal will be asked to take nose and throat swabs at intervals following exposure, which will be tested for the presence of the virus.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has advised that based on the current scientific evidence, avian influenza poses a very low food safety risk for UK consumers. Properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, are safe to eat. Everyone should follow FSA’s food safety and hygiene advice.

What are you doing to prepare for situation where avian Influenza does spread between people?

UKHSA is working with partners to identify ‘knowledge gaps’ around avian influenza, including whether lateral flow devices could be deployed to test for H5N1 in humans and analysis of the genetic mutations that would signal an increased risk to human health.

As there has been no evidence globally of sustained human-to-human transmission of influenza A(H5N1) and as we cannot predict the characteristics of a novel influenza virus, we have looked to outbreaks of other respiratory viruses to help us determine which testing and surveillance systems would be necessary at the beginning of an outbreak to detect human cases of avian influenza. These scenarios include different options for clinical severity and age profiles of those suffering severe disease to enable us to look at a range of different options for testing and estimate when these would help us identify a human case of H5N1.

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