A growing number of outbreaks of the H1N1 strain of the avian influenza virus have been recorded in the UK in the past few weeks. Most recently, the government confirmed a first case of avian influenza in a human—an incident that has historically only occurred a handful of times in the country.
What is avian influenza?
As explained by the NHS, it is an infection caused by the avian influenza virus and predominantly circulates amongst birds. Very rarely does the virus get passed on from birds to humans and mammals, but there have been instances where this happened around the world.
While there are many different strains of the bird flu virus, like with any other virus, there are four that are particularly concerning to human beings: H5N1, H7N9, H5N6, and H5N8.
The current strain that has been infecting birds in the UK is H5N1.
Given the recent outbreak of cases, officials from UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have warned the public from touching sick or dead birds. Professor Isabel Oliver, Chief Scientific Officer at UKHSA, said in a statement published by the government:
It remains critical that people do not touch sick or dead birds, and that they follow the DEFRA advice about reporting.
The NHS also recommends that you refrain from touching bird droppings or bedding. It is, however, safe to eat properly cooked poultry and eggs—'even in areas with an outbreak of avian influenza.’
Although the chances of catching the virus from contact with a bird is very low, infections in humans can be fatal if it does happen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms in mild infections include fever, cough, sore throat, conjunctivitis, and muscle ache. However, infection can also lead to other severe conditions like pneumonia, respiratory failure, and ‘neurologic changes.’ They write:
HPAI Asian lineage H5N1 viruses have been responsible for most human illness worldwide to date, including most serious illnesses and highest mortality.