Bird flu concerns are starting to mount in the UK – but should how worried should we be, and what does it actually do?
Here are the facts.
What is bird flu?
Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, is a virus which triggers disease among birds.
The most serious strain is called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), and can cause a whole host of symptoms, including sudden death in the bird.
There’s also the less serious version, low pathogenic avian influenza (IPAI).
On very rare occasions, it can spread to people after they’ve been exposed to infected birds, by contaminating a human’s nose and throat, or it can also be true infection.
You can catch bird flu by touching sick or dead birds, touching droppings or bedding, or by killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking.
However, there is currently no evidence that it can spread from person to person.
You cannot catch it by eating fully cooked poultry or eggs, even where there is an outbreak, although bird flu restrictions have affected the UK’s supermarket egg supplies in recent months.
What are the bird flu symptoms in humans?
According to the NHS, symptoms include:
- High temperature or feeling hot or shivery
- Aching muscles
- Cough or shortness of breath
- Stomach pain
- Chest pain
- Bleeding from the nose and gums
The NHS explains it can take around 3 to 5 days for the first symptoms to appear after infection. Complications can later occur, such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
It’s important to get treated quickly, and doctors will probably prescribe antiviral medicine to help you feel better as soon as possible.
It’s much harder to treat in birds – poultry with the most serious strain can die, or suffer from a list of serious symptoms such as swollen head or closed and runny eyes.
Why are concerns around bird flu increasing now?
Two people have tested positive for avian flu after working on an infected poultry farm in England.
However, neither experienced any symptoms and both have since tested negative.
UKHSA (the UK Health Security Agency) claims one person likely had nose and/or throat contamination on the farm, although said it’s harder to understand how the second individual caught it.
The authorities have also confirmed that there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission yet, while the overall threat to human health is still very low.
What do authorities say?
Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at UKHSA, said that it looks like the current viruses “do not spread easily to people”.
However, she added: “We know already that the virus can spread to people following close contact with infected birds.”
She said they are monitoring people who have been exposed to learn more about the illness, contacting those with the highest risk exposures on a daily basis to watch their symptoms.
Hopkins added: “We know that viruses evolve all the time and we remain vigilant for any evidence of changing risk to the population.”
The UKHSA is asking poultry workers to swab their nose and throat to check for the virus’s presence 10 days after their exposure, with some people being asked to have finger prick blood tests to see if they can detect an immune response.
But, importantly, it does not look like the virus is mutating.
Professor Ian Brown, director of scientific services for Animal and Plant health agency, said: “No the virus is not changing its characteristics to something more risky to humans but continued monitoring [is] important.”
Brown added that “the scale of the epidemic in wild birds appears to have diminished since before Christmas”, predicting that this “will disappear over the summer, but what will happen is hard to predict.”
How do you avoid it?
According to the NHS, you can protect yourself from bird flu by:
- Washing your hands often with warm water and soap especially after handling food
- Using different utensils for cooked and raw meat
- Making sure meat is cooked until steaming hot
- Avoiding contact with live birds and poultry
- Not eating raw eggs, undercooked poultry/ duck