A rare case of bird flu has been detected in a person living in the UK for the first time. Fortunately, the person is said to be feeling “well” and the wider risk to the public is currently very low.
On January 6, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced that a person living in the South West of England who has “regular contact with a large number of infected birds” had a lab-confirmed case of H5N1 influenza.
H5N1 flu is currently circulating in birds in the UK, but it's the first reported human case with this particular strain of H5N1 in the country, says Ian H Brown, Head of Virology at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).
There have previously been other human cases of H5N1 in other parts of the world, but they are extremely rare with fewer than 1,000 cases reported globally since 2003, according to Professor Mike Tildesley, a professor in infectious disease modeling at the University of Warwick.
While news of viruses jumping from animals to humans might understandably ignite some anxiety, experts have called for calm over the discovery. All contacts of the infected person, who is self-isolating, have been traced and there is no evidence of the infection spreading to anyone else. Bird-to-human transmission of avian flu is very uncommon and typically requires close contact with an infected bird. Human-to-human transmission of bird flu is very rare. As such, health authorities claim the risk to the public is very low, although they maintained their guidance that people should not touch sick or dead birds.
“While the risk of avian flu to the general public is very low, we know that some strains do have the potential to spread to humans and that’s why we have robust systems in place to detect these early and take action,” Professor Isabel Oliver, Chief Scientific Officer at UKHSA, said in a statement.
“Currently there is no evidence that this strain detected in the UK can spread from person to person, but we know that viruses evolve all the time and we continue to monitor the situation closely,” she added.
Other scientists agree with this stance, agreeing that it's an extremely rare event that needs an appropriate, but level-headed, response to stamp out.
“Human to human transmission of H5N1 avian influenza viruses are extremely rare and there is nothing in the genetic makeup of the most recent H5N1 avian influenza strain reported in the UK that suggests this virus would be capable of efficient and effective human to human transmission,” explained Dr Holly Shelton, Head of the Influenza Viruses Group at The Pirbright Institute.
“Birds and humans are very different and influenza viruses must adapt and change in order for avian viruses to establish transmission in humans. The proteins that the virus interacts with inside the infected cells are different in humans and birds and, consequently, avian viruses find it hard to replicate themselves in humans."