A severe bird flu outbreak could kill one in 40 people infected in Britain, according to experts led by the epidemiologist whose forecasts led the Government to impose the first COVID-19 lockdown. Professor Neil Ferguson is part of a team working on “scenarios of early human transmission” of bird flu in a bid to “facilitate preparedness” with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Only one Briton has caught the illness since it started spreading worldwide in 2021. Five further cases have been reported by the WHO since December of that year. These were from the US, Spain, Vietnam and China.
Fears of another pandemic are mounting as the H5N1 strain jumps from birds to mammals.
The UKHSA says, however, that there has been little to no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of avian influenza viruses. In its latest update, the UKHSA said its bird flu group has calculated that in a “mild” outbreak one in 400 people with the illness would die. A “more severe” scenario would see one in 40 perish.
The recent detection of infections in a variety of mammals, including at a large mink farm in Spain, has raised concerns among experts the virus could evolve to spread more easily between people and potentially trigger a pandemic.
The UKHSA update says between October 1, 2022, and February 14, a total of 2,310 episodes of exposure to bird flu were recorded.
These were mainly in the East of England and the East Midlands, though since officials intervened, the number of incidents and probable exposures in the regions has “significantly reduced”.
A national housing order for poultry started on November 7 with a relatively low number of infected premises reported in England since with a sharp drop seen from mid-January, according to the UKHSA.
However, avian influenza in wild birds continues with the illness spread more widely across the country.
The update coincides with the death of an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia who was infected by bird flu.
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Dr. Sylvie Briand, the WHO’s Director for Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention, said the UN agency is “in close communication with the Cambodian authorities to understand more about the outbreak”.
Speaking ahead of a meeting in Geneva on influenza vaccines, Dr Briand called the global situation concerning the virus “worrying given the wide spread of the virus in birds around the world, and the increasing reports of cases in mammals, including humans”.
She said: “WHO takes the risk from this virus seriously and urges heightened vigilance from all countries.”
The Cambodian girl, from a village in the southeastern province of Prey Veng, died on Wednesday at a hospital in the capital, Phnom Penh, shortly after tests confirmed she had Type A H5N1 bird flu, according to Cambodia’s Health Ministry.
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She fell ill on February 16 and when her condition worsened she was sent to the hospital with a fever as high as 39C (102F) with coughing and throat pain.
The girl’s father has also tested positive for the virus, but has not displayed any major symptoms, health authorities said on Friday.
Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, normally spreads between sick poultry but can sometimes spread from poultry to humans.
Health Ministry spokesperson Ly Sovann told The Associated Press that the Cambodian father’s case is under investigation, and it was not yet known how he became infected. He has been put in isolation at a local district hospital for monitoring and treatment.
A ministry team collected samples from 12 people from the dead girl’s village known to have had direct contact with her, and laboratory tests confirmed Friday that only her father was infected.
Health professionals have expressed concern about a wave of bird flu that has spread worldwide in the past year and a half, but consider the current risk to humans to be low.
Professor James Wood, Head of the Veterinary Medicine Department at the University of Cambridge, said: “There has been a massive global challenge of wild and domestic birds with the current H5N1 avian influenza virus over the last few months and years, which will have exposed many humans; despite this, what is remarkable is how few people have been infected.
“Tragic though this case in Cambodia is, we expect there to be some cases of clinical disease with such a widespread infection. Clearly the virus needs careful monitoring and surveillance to check that it has not mutated or recombined, but the limited numbers of cases of human disease have not increased markedly and this one case in itself does not signal the global situation has suddenly changed.”
According to the World Health Organisation, there were 56 bird flu cases in humans in Cambodia from 2003 until 2014. In total, 37 of them were fatal.
Globally, about 870 human infections and 457 deaths have been reported to the WHO in 21 countries, for an overall case fatality rate of 53 percent.
But the pace has slowed and there have been about 170 infections and 50 deaths in the last seven years. In the vast majority of cases, the infected people got it directly from infected birds.
The World Organisation for Animal Health said in a statement: “Between 2005 and 2020, 246 million poultry died or were culled because of avian influenza.”
“Since October 2021, an unprecedented number of outbreaks has been reported in several regions of the world, reaching new geographical areas and causing devastating impacts on animal health and welfare.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the current H5N1 outbreak is mostly an animal health issue.
It warned on its website: “However, people should avoid direct and close contact with sick or dead wild birds, poultry, and wild animals. People should not consume uncooked or undercooked poultry or poultry products, including raw eggs.
“Consuming properly cooked poultry, poultry products, and eggs is safe.”
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