First case of human H5-type bird flu found in UK

The first human case of “H5” type bird flu has been found in Britain, health officials have confirmed, as they warned people not to touch sick or dead birds.

The infection was found in an individual in the south-west England who kept a large number of birds in, and around, their home, and who was swabbed following an H5N1 outbreak.

The infected person, who is currently well according to officials, has been treated with antiviral medication and is now self-isolating. Contacts have been traced, but there is currently no evidence of onward spread.

The UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) has notified the World Health Organisation.

Laboratory analysis has shown the infection is the “H5” type, but it has not yet been confirmed as an H5N1 infection, which has a death rate of 53 per cent.

The UK has recently seen a large number of outbreaks and incidents of avian influenza in birds across the country of the H5N1 strain, with 36 confirmed cases in 2021, leading to a cull of 500,000 birds.

Laboratory analysis has shown the infection is the ‘H5’ type, but it has not yet been confirmed as an H5N1 infection

Credit: David Cole/Alamy Stock Photo

Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, 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.

“We took swift action to limit the spread of the disease at the site in question. All infected birds have been humanely culled, and cleansing and disinfection of the premises is underway. This is a reminder that stringent cleanliness when keeping animals is important.

“We are seeing a growing number of cases in birds on both commercial farms and in backyard flocks across the country. Implementing scrupulous biosecurity measures will help keep your birds safe.”

The case was detected after the Animal and Plant Health Agency identified an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in a flock of birds and swabbed those who had been in close contact.

The UKHSA said that the risk to the wider public from avian flu continues to be very low, however they have warned the public not to touch sick or dead birds. The infected birds have all been culled.

Although bird-to-human transmission of avian flu has occurred a small number of times in Britain previously, it is very rare, as is human-to-human transmission.

Experts said that infection occurs through direct handling of the birds, and does not spread like seasonal flu.

Despite eggs being disposed at a farm in Israel following an outbreak of bird flu there, officials in the UK say eating eggs remains safe

Credit: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

Mike Tildesley, a professor in infectious disease modelling at 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 and they almost always occur as a result of direct, long-term contact with poultry.

“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.”

Prof Isabel Oliver, the chief scientific officer – transition lead at the UK Health Security Agency, 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.”

She added: “We have followed up all of this individual’s contacts and have not identified any onward spread. It remains critical that people do not touch sick or dead birds, and that they follow the Defra advice about reporting.”

Experts also reassured the public that there is no risk from eating poultry or eggs.

Prof Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said: “Despite the current heightened concern around viruses there is no risk to chicken meat or eggs and no need for public alarm.”

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