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Plans in place for bird flu pandemic & how to spot the signs of an infection

Bird flu is a highly contagious disease that affects poultry and other birds. In general, the risk of bird flu spreading to humans is, at the moment, extremely low and unlikely. However, experts are concerned that there could be another pandemic similar to the one in 1918, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide – almost 5 percent of the global population at the time.

Zoomed in picture of a virus particle

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is a type of influenza that can be deadly in birds and humans. It’s not the same as swine flu, even though both are types of influenza viruses.

Bird flu is also not as easy to catch – it’s not contagious between people, but it can be passed from bird to people. There have been no reported cases of human-to-human transmission of bird flu yet.

Most recent outbreak

In recent months, a record number of bird deaths from H5N1 has been recorded. Since the latest outbreak, only one Briton has caught the disease, but the threat to human life is still apparently low, according to the World Health Organization.

However, experts have been raising concerns about an increase in infected mammals, from seals to bears, as well as potential mammal-to-mammal transmission on a mink farm located in Spain, last year.

It follows the death of an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia after she was infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu, and is the first known human infection since 2014.

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How prepared is the UK and the world if worst comes to worst?

Sylvie Briand, the director for WHO flobal infectious hazard preparedness, said “we are more prepared (than for covid), but even if we are more prepared, we are not yet prepared enough”, adding “we need to really continue efforts for a flu pandemic.”

Those responsible for working on the models in the UK include Professor Neil Ferguson, whose Covid projections leds to the UK Government enforcing the first lockdown.

A potential vaccine is already part of the duiscussions.

WHO labs have two virus strains which are closely related to the H5N1 virus, which could be used by manufacturers to create a human vaccine if needed.

How does bird flu spread to humans?

As of now, bird flu cannot spread human-to-human and you can only get infected by being in close contact with an infected bird, either dead or alive.

This includes:

  • Touching infected birds
  • Touching droppings or bedding
  • Killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking

Markets where live birds are sold can also be a source of bird flu. These markets should be avoided if you are travelling to countries that have had an outbreak of bird flu. Before travelling, you can check the health advice for the place you’re visiting on the TravelHealthPro website.

If you’re travelling to anywhere where a recent outbreak has occured, make sure you’re eating poultry or eggs to fully cook them.

Picture of a person wearing protective clothing and a gas mask

Symptoms of bird flu in humans

The symptoms of bird flu in human can vary, depending on which strain you/they have been infected with. Symptoms can range from mild flu like illness, sometimes with conjunctivitis (red, sore, discharging eye), diarrhoea and abdominal pain, to a severe respiratory illness with difficulties breathing and pneumonia. Human infections can sometime be fatal.

The main symptoms of bird flu in humans can appear very quickly and include:

  • A very high temperature or feeling hot or shivery
  • Aching muscles
  • Headache
  • A cough or shortness of breath

Other early symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Sickness
  • Stomach pain
  • Chest pain
  • Bleeding from the nose and gums
  • Conjunctivitis

Once a person has been infected, it usually takes 3 to 5 days for the first symptoms to appear.

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

It’s important to seek treatment immediately if you suspect a bird flu infection. Using antiviral medicines may prevent complications and reduce the risk of developing severe illness.

Treatment for bird flu

If it’s thought you might have symptoms of bird flu you’ll be advised to stay at home, or you’ll be cared for in hospital in isolation from other patients.

You may be given an antiviral medicine such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza).

Taking antiviral medicines can help reduce the severity of the condition, prevent complications and improve the chances of survival.

Antivirals may also be given to those who have been in close contact with infected birds, or those who have had contact with infected people, such as family or healthcare staff.

If you suspect bird flu in poultry or other captive birds, it must be reported immediately by calling the following:

  • 03000 200 301 if you’re in England
  • 03003 038 268 if you’re in Wales
  • APHA Field Services if you’re in Scotland

Bird flu is considered a notifiable disease in poultry and other captive birds. If you do not report it, you’re breaking the law.

Signs that a bird may be infected with bird flu include:

  • Sudden death
  • Swollen head
  • Closed and runny eyes

The latest outbreak of bird flu is a reminder that we all must remain vigilant in our efforts to stop the spread of infectious diseases. The good news is no human-to-human spread has been observed, and there is plenty you can do to prevent infection, such as practicing good hygiene and avoiding close contact with birds.

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