Health authorities in Russia have reported what is believed to be the first-ever human cases of H5N8 Influenza (bird flu) infection to the World Health Organization.
"If confirmed, this would be the first time H5N8 has infected people," a WHO Europe spokesperson confirmed in a statement to CNN.
There are various different strains of avian influenza, and new variations arise each year, similar to human influenza viruses.
In most cases, the virus strains only infect birds and are commonly detected in poultry farm animals, where mass cullings follow any reported outbreak to restrict the spread. However, as previously reported, humans getting infected with bird flu is not unheard of. Various strains are capable of making the jump, especially to farmworkers that have close contact with bird species. Some of these outbreaks have sparked public health scares in the past, because certain strains of avian influenza can be deadly.
The latest announcement reports seven poultry farm workers infected with a new strain of bird flu, H5N8, in southern Russia. The outbreak of the H5N8 virus in poultry birds was first reported in recent months across various regions in Russia.
The World Health Organization’s statement confirmed that the individuals that have been infected were “asymptomatic and no onward human to human transmission was reported.”
The latest detection of H5N8 in humans could not have come at a worse time, as the world is still currently getting to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a report by Bloomberg, Anna Popova, Russia's public health chief stated during a televised address on Saturday:
“It is not transmitted from person to person. But only time will tell how soon future mutations will allow it to overcome this barrier,” she said. The discovery of this strain now “gives us all, the whole world, time to prepare for possible mutations and the possibility to react in a timely way and develop test systems and vaccines.”
Authorities in Russia are currently gathering more information on the cases, and the WHO still needs to officially confirm the reports.
If the virus were to mutate and human-to-human spread was achieved, then that would cause grave concern, as previous transmissions of H5N1 and H7N9 influenza strains from birds to humans has resulted in a fatality rate of 60 percent and 39 percent respectively.
Currently, our best method to deal with avian influenza is the mass culling of birds to halt the spread once an outbreak on a farm is detected. Human cases are isolated, and genetic changes in the virus strains are closely monitored so to predict whether the virus is mutating in ways that may make human-to-human spread more likely.