Can humans catch bird flu?

DEADLY bird flu can cause widespread outbreaks and occasionally spread to humans.

It is rare but possible for humans to catch the virus – with some strains having a high fatality rate.

Can humans catch bird flu?

Bird flu, or avian flu, is an infectious flu that spreads among birds but in rare cases can affect humans.

There are four strains that are a cause for concern, the NHS says, which are:

  1. H5N1 (since 1997)
  2. H7N9 (since 2013)
  3. H5N6 (since 2014)
  4. H5N8 (since 2016)

Humans can catch bird flu when they have close contact with an infected bird (dead or alive), the NHS says. 

It manages to spill over into humans when they touch infected birds, their droppings or bedding, or kill and prepare the bird for cooking.

Markets where live birds are sold can also be a source of bird flu. 

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You can't catch bird flu through eating fully cooked poultry or eggs, even in areas with an outbreak of bird flu.

In January 2022, it was confirmed that a man in the south west had caught bird flu for the first time in the UK.

A source said the case was picked up after routine surveillance testing was triggered by infection in his flock.

Lab tests show the man is infected with an H5 strain of bird flu, most likely the H5N1 type.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says: "Bird flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds and there are many different types.

"Some strains of bird flu can pass to humans but this is extremely rare.

"It usually requires very close contact with an infected bird so the risk to humans is considered very low."

Bird flu outbreaks occur throughout the year in the UK, causing flocks to be culled.

Can humans die of bird flu?

Bird flu has caused serious outbreaks in the past, namely in 2016-2017 when almost 300 people were killed by the H7N9 strain in China.

The country had already dealt with several waves of the strain since 2013.

A total number of 759 infections and 281 deaths were reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and CDC.

In total around 1,200 people have been diagnosed with H7N9 since it first cropped up.

Around 40 per cent have died, giving it a high fatality rate.

The WHO has identified H7N9 as "an unusually dangerous virus for humans”.

How bad is bird flu in the UK?

There are occasional outbreaks of bird flu in poultry and wild birds in the UK.

But no humans have been infected until the positive case in the south west in January 2022.

In the 2021 to 2022 season so far, there have been multiple bird flu cases confirmed across the UK – with the chief vet warning the country was seeing "phenomenal levels"

Using the Government website, you can see how many current cases there are in each nation, and where there are security zones to minimise spread.

How can you avoid catching bird flu?

UKHSA has said that bird flu “is primarily a disease of birds and the risk to the general public’s health is very low”.

If you find dead wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks) or other dead wild birds, such as gulls or birds of prey, you should report them to the Defra helpline (03459 33 55 77 – select option 7).

All bird keepers, even those of pets, must keep a close watch on them for signs of disease, and it is a legal requirement to register poultry, such as chickens or pheasants.

If you visit a country that has had an outbreak of bird flu, you should:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap, especially before and after handling food, in particular raw poultry
  • use different utensils for cooked and raw meat
  • make sure meat is cooked until steaming hot
  • avoid contact with live birds and poultry

The NHS also says to avoid visiting markets where live animals are sold in countries that have had bird flu outbreaks.

When to seek medical advice for bird flu

Call a GP or NHS 111 if you experience any symptoms of bird flu and have visited an area affected by bird flu in the past 10 days.

The main symptoms of bird flu can appear very quickly and include:

  • a very high temperature or feeling hot or shivery
  • aching muscles
  • headache
  • a cough or shortness of breath

Other early symptoms may include:

  • diarrhoea
  • sickness
  • stomach pain
  • chest pain
  • bleeding from the nose and gums
  • conjunctivitis

It usually takes three to five days for the first symptoms to appear after you've been infected.

Within days of symptoms appearing, it's possible to develop more severe complications such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

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