Does the spread of bird flu to mammals mean increased risk to humans?

Some otters and foxes in the UK have been infected with bird flu, and experts suggest they may have eaten dead wild birds carrying the virus.

But does this mean that bird flu can be transmitted to humans and other mammals, and what is the risk of this happening?

PA Media Answers Some Top Questions.

– What is bird flu?

Bird flu, or bird flu, is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds. In rare cases, it can affect humans.

There are many different strains of the bird flu virus, and most of them do not infect humans.

More than seven million captive birds have died from bird flu or been culled for disease control since an outbreak began in October 2021.

There have been 279 cases of H5N1, the bird flu, in England since the outbreak began, according to figures released last month by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

– What has actually happened to raise concerns about spread to mammals?

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) reported in December that 20 mammals had been tested in the UK, of which eight (foxes and otters) tested positive for bird flu.

Since then, this number has been updated to nine.

– How is it possible that mammals have caught bird flu?

The affected species, foxes and otters, are known to feed on carrion.

In all likelihood, affected animals will have collected infected wild bird carcasses, which may have had very high levels of the virus.

Such high exposure likely overwhelmed the mammal’s immune system, resulting in infection.

– Now that the foxes and otters have been infected, does that mean there is a risk to people?

Experts and officials say the risk to humans remains low.

Dr Alastair Ward, Associate Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management at the University of Leeds, says that while the developments do not increase the risk of the virus spreading to humans, this is not 100% certain.

He explained: “Humans rarely come into contact with wild foxes or otters, and potentially infectious contact is likely to be even rarer.

“In the past, relatively small numbers of humans who lived or worked closely with affected poultry, for example, in slaughterhouses, became infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza, with variable results.”

While there is no transmission within mammalian populations, the risk to humans remains low.

Experts say sensible precautions can be taken, such as avoiding contact with wild mammals and birds, wearing protective gloves and a face covering if contact is unavoidable, and washing hands and soiled clothing with soap and water after exposure to the affected environments.

– Do the latest developments mean that the virus is mutating?

Experts say there is currently no reason to suspect that the jump is due to a change in the genetic makeup of the virus.

However, experts say the cases in otters and foxes illustrate a potential risk to watch out for.

But Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, suggests that the risk to people at this point appears to be no greater than from direct spread from infected birds.

– Should we worry about spreading to other animals?

Symptoms in mammals can vary considerably, but in the past there have been no mass deaths of these animals that could become infected with bird flu.

While it is concerning to find the virus in wild mammals in the UK, there is currently no reason to expect it to spread through wild mammal populations.

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