How long before bird flu is in the UK?

Government chief vet declares ‘prevention zone’ for England as highly infectious strain of avian flu (H5N8) hits Europe.   

Bird Flu or more correctly Avian Influenza, is a Type A virus, of which there are many strains that affect many animals, including humans.

While most strains of avian influenza are found exclusively in birds, there are some strains such as H5N1, H7N9, and H5N6, which have caused severe illness or death in humans.  H5N8 has not yet been found in humans;  the risk is low but can never be zero.



Influenza A viruses can become virulent to new hosts through a process called “antigenic shift”.  This can happen when two viruses infect a host and then combine to form a new strain. This could then become endemic in a population and lead to further reassortments.  Natural infections of H5N8 have been reported in dogs in South Korea  and this is the type of spread that could provide more opportunity for the virus to mutate into a human strain.

In September 2016 the United Nations first warned about the spread of H5N8, when it was found in water birds in Russia.  After this warning, H5N8 spread south into India, affecting several states, and west into Europe.  Now, H5N8 has been detected in Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Israel, and Iran.  Outbreaks in Europe began to be detected in late October. The World Organisation for Animal Health expects more outbreaks in Europe and elsewhere such as in the United States.

As the virus can be carried by migratory shorebirds (between Europe and Africa.) this points to farmers closing down their facilities to avoid infection during the migratory period. However, this may not be enough to prevent the spread of H5N8 and additional biosecurity practices may be necessary.

H5N8 can be spread via contaminated equipment and clothing that comes into contact with infected bird droppings or water supplies. Farmers should not share equipment and ensure decontamination when entering or leaving their facilities.

For now the Government advise that:

“While no cases of H5N8 avian flu have been found in the UK, and PHE advises the public health threat is low, we are closely monitoring the situation across Europe and have scaled up surveillance in response to the heightened risk.

As a precaution, and to allow time for poultry and captive bird keepers to put in place appropriate biosecurity measures, we have declared a 30-day Prevention Zone to reduce the risk of infection from wild birds.

Even when birds are housed a risk of infection remains so this must be coupled with good biosecurity – for example disinfecting clothing and equipment, reducing poultry movement and minimising contact between poultry and wild birds.”

Former military officer; risk consultant and is involved with several voluntary groups in Rye.

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