Recently there have been numerous reports of the rapid spread of avian flu across Europe. With the memories of previous outbreaks that caused widespread devastation across poultry farms and fatalities in humans, there are concerns that this time it could be worse.
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What is avian flu?
Avian flu is a type of influenza virus adapted to live in birds. A virus is made up of genetic material, such as DNA or RNA, covered by a protective protein coat. Flu viruses are constantly changing, which means they have the ability adapt to become the best at infecting hosts. This is why they have the potential to cause pandemics (the spread of an infectious disease that has spread through human populations across a large region).
Upon the discovery of the influenza virus the first parts to be identified were two proteins on the virus surface called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. This lead the naming system still used today: ‘H’ for hemagglutinin and ‘N’ for neuraminidase. The types of virus were numbered as they were discovered, for example: the first virus identified was H1. However, there are six other genes present in flu viruses. This means that although strains have the same name, they have six genes that could be different. Therefore, it is possible that two viruses with the same name could either cause mild symptoms or be highly contagious.
It is worth noting that most types of avian flu do not infect humans. However, a number of the ones that do, cause serious infection. The strains of the virus that can cause fatalities in poultry are the H5 and H8.
The Last Outbreak
The current strain, H5N8, has evolved from H5N1, which was first recorded in a goose on a Chinese farm in 1996. H5N1 is highly pathogenic, meaning it is contagious and so spreads quickly. This led to the rapid spread of the disease across Asia, Europe and Africa; hundreds of birds died, significantly impacting the poultry markets. The disease spread to humans from contact with these birds causing 452 deaths.
The H5N1 virus has had the opportunity to hybridise with other types of flu because the migrating birds congregate in North-Central Asia during the warm summer months before dispersing all over Africa, Europe and Asia. This the first time that wild birds have died because this H5N8 strain has picked up new genes from flu in wild birds. There is a high likelihood of more H5N8 outbreaks in both wild bird populations – such as geese, ducks and gulls – and farmed animals, due to the migration of wild birds.
The first case of infection report in Europe was on a farm in Germany where there was swift response; a 3 km2 quarantine was set up and 30,000 chickens were culled. There have been further reports of infected birds from Austria, Lake Geneva in Switzerland and Romania.
So far, no humans have been affected. A report from the World Health Organisation has concluded that the risk of human infection is low but cannot be excluded. H5 flu viruses rarely infect humans however one similar strain, H5N6, has caused 6 fatalities out of the 14 reported cases of infection in humans. The disease has only been transmitted to humans when a person has come into contact with infected poultry, and there is no evidence that eating infected meat that has been cooked correctly can cause transfer of the disease.
If you’re worried about Avian flu, their advice is to avoid contact with dead or sick birds, wash your hands thoroughly after any contact with livestock and make sure to cook poultry thoroughly.