The first human case of a deadly strain of bird flu has been detected in a person living in the South West of England as the country faces its largest ever outbreak in animals, health officials have said.
Britain’s ‘patient zero’ caught the H5N1 virus after ‘very close and regular’ contact with a large number of infected birds which they kept in and around their home, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
It is the first ever human case of H5N1 — which kills up to half of the people it infects — recorded in the UK and fewer than 1,000 people have ever been diagnosed with the strain globally since it emerged in the late 1990s.
No more details about the individual have been released, but officials said they were in good health and currently in self-isolation. All of the patient’s infected birds have been culled.
Their close personal contacts, including people who visited the premises, have also been traced and there is ‘no evidence’ of the infection having spread to anyone else, the UKHSA said.
The current H5N1 outbreak is the largest bird flu crisis ever recorded in Britain – with officials saying more than half a million poultry have had to be culled as part of efforts to control the virus.
The outbreak has been going on for weeks and sparked fears of a turkey shortage in the run-up to Christmas.
Bird to human transmission of bird flu – also known as avian flu – is rare and has only occurred a small number of times in the UK. However, the public is being urged not to touch sick or dead birds.
Subsequent human-to-human transmission of avian influenza is also rare and the risk of a major outbreak in people is deemed to be even lower.
But the development comes with fears about infectious pathogens at an all-time high in the UK after two years of the Covid pandemic, reignited by the latest surge in Omicron infections.
Thousands of birds being culled in Lincolnshire in December
Dead turkeys are loaded onto a JCB at Redgrave Park Farm, in Redgrave, Suffolk following an outbreak of bird flu at the turkey farm
A warning sign for avian influenza in Barkby, Leicestershire
A map of bird flu outbreaks in the UK recorded by the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA)
The case was detected by the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, which routinely monitors anyone who has been in contact with infected birds.
A virus that kills up to 50% of humans… but transmission is rare: Everything you need to know about bird flu
Bird flu, or avian flu, is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among bird species but can, on rare occasions, jump to human beings.
While such cases are rare, and usually don’t spread on human-to-human it can be fatal.
Fatality rates for bird flu in humans have been estimated to be as high as 50 per cent.
Like human influenza there are many strains of bird flu:
The current outbreak in birds in the UK is H5N1 though this has not yet been confirmed as the strain that the infected Briton has.
This strain, which first started causing concern 1997 has jumped to humans 863 times since 2003 of which 456 were fatal.
One of the deadliest outbreaks was in Indonesia in 2006 where 45 of the 55 people who caught the virus died.
Bird flu is spread by close contact with an infected bird or the body of one.
This can include:
- touching infected birds
- touching droppings or bedding
- killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking
Symptoms of bird flu usually take three to five days to appear with the most common being:
- a very high temperature
- or feeling hot or shivery
- aching muscles
- a cough or shortness of breath
The infected birds the person had contact with have now been culled, health authorities confirmed.
UKHSA chief scientific officer Professor Isabel Oliver, said: ‘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.
‘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.’
The World Health Organization has been notified about the development.
The last recorded case of bird flu in the UK was in 2006 but this was for the H7 version of the virus. In total there have been less than five cases of bird flu in humans recorded in Britain according to UKHSA.
Reacting to the news Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said there was no cause for public alarm about the human transmission and that poultry products, such as eggs, remained safe.
‘Transfer of avian flu to people is rare as it requires direct contact between an infected, usually dead, bird and the individual concerned,’ he said.
‘It is a risk for the handlers who are charged with the disposal of carcasses after an outbreak but the virus does not spread generally and poses little threat. It does not behave like the seasonal flu we are used to.
‘Despite the current heightened concern around viruses there is no risk to chicken meat or eggs and no need for public alarm.’
Professor Mike Tildesley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the University of Warwick, added: ‘This is clearly going to be big news but the key thing is that human infections with H5N1 are really rare and they almost always occur as a result of direct, long term contact with poultry.
‘There has never been any evidence of sustained human to human transmission of H5N1 so at present I wouldn’t consider this to be a significant public health risk.’
According to World Health Organization data, as of October 2021 there have been 863 cases of H5N1 in humans reported globally since 2003, of which 456, 52 per cent, were fatal.
Professor Paul Wigley, an expert in avian infection and immunity at the University of Liverpool also said concern of human transmission should be low, especially considering the infected individual appears to have caught a H5 strain.
‘Avian influenza such as the H5 serotype is largely adapted to infect birds and so is very unlikely to be transmitted from person-to-person.
‘The risk of wider infection in the general public remains low.’
Bird flu outbreaks are also affecting other nations personnel of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and of the Danish Emergency Management Agency disposed of thousands of turkeys at a farm near the village of Ruds Vedby
More than 130 cases of ‘flurona’ were detected in England BEFORE Omicron took place… but experts insist there is no reason to panic
More than 160 cases of ‘flurona’ have already been detected in England, MailOnline can reveal — but experts say true toll could be in the region of 1,000 and insist it the fears are ‘overhyped’.
Data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows of the 8.6million people in England who tested positive for Covid by the end of November, 169 also had influenza — 0.002 per cent.
Health chiefs said the real figure of those who have had both viruses at once will be higher, and around three in 10 people who require an intensive oxygen treatment in hospital have a secondary infection on top of Covid.
Dual infections of influenza and coronavirus have been reported this week in Europe and the US, including in children and a pregnant woman.
But doctors monitoring the cases have so far reported mild symptoms, and one top expert said concerns over ‘flurona’ are ‘overhyped’.
Flu has yet to make a resurgence in the UK after cases fell to their lowest level in 130 years during the pandemic, as restrictions brought in to reduce the spread of Covid also prevented flu cases from reaching usual levels.
Experts warned this lack of immunity could lead to 60,000 flu deaths this winter, up from the usual annual death toll of 10,000 to 25,000.
But data from the Office for National Statistics — which groups death data for flu and pneumonia — shows this category of fatalities were a fifth lower in November than the five year average in England.
However, experts told MailOnline the risk of dual infections will inevitably increase if flu takes off this winter, like seen elsewhere.
The case comes after a large number of outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds across the UK, with alerts having been issued to bird owners for months.
The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said: ‘We are seeing a growing number of cases in birds on both commercial farms and in backyard flocks across the country. Implementing scrupulous biosecurity measures will help keep your birds safe.’
Only one confirmed infection H5N1 in humans was reported in 2021. This case occurred in India and was fatal.
The UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss has warned poultry owners to implement ‘scrupulous biosecurity’ to keep their animals safe from the virus.
Dr Middlemiss said there are currently 40 infected premises in the UK – including 33 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland, and two in Northern Ireland.
Bird owners have been told to keep all animals housed inside and away from wild birds who may have migrated from abroad and brought the flu with them.
Farmers must cleanse and disinfect clothing, equipment and vehicles before and after contact with their birds.
And they are instructed to change their footwear if possible and clean them thoroughly if not when entering poultry sheds.
Bird housing must be disinfected thoroughly and all feed and water must be kept inaccessible to wild birds.
If there are any concerns or signs of disease, farmers are told to seek prompt advice from their vet.
Dr Middlemiss said: ‘We have taken swift action to limit the spread of the disease including introducing housing measures.
‘However, we are seeing a growing number of bird flu cases both on commercial farms and in backyard birds right across the country.
‘Many poultry keepers have excellent biosecurity standards but the number of cases we are seeing suggests that not enough is being done to keep bird flu out.
‘Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands you must take action now to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.’
She continued: ‘Implementing scrupulous biosecurity has never been more critical.
‘You must regularly clean and disinfect your footwear and clothes before entering enclosures, stop your birds mixing with any wild birds and only allow visitors that are strictly necessary.
‘It is your actions that will help keep your birds safe.’
Wild bird species involved in the UK outbreak are mostly geese, ducks and swans. A number of birds of prey have also been confirmed to have died.
Dr Middlemiss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the virus is being spread by migratory birds flying back from the north of Russia and eastern Europe, an annual migratory season that goes on until March.