WHO issues alert over possible new pandemic that could affect humans, should we be worried?

Experts have warned about a potential human bird flu pandemic after the virus jumped from birds to mammals.

WHO issues alert over possible new pandemic that could affect humans, should we be worried?
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WHO issues alert over possible new pandemic that could affect humans, should we be worried?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a warning that the world should be prepared for another pandemic - this time in the form of human bird flu. The announcement has come after reports that the virus has made the jump from birds to mammals such as otters, mink and foxes.

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The risk of this strain of the virus jumping to humans is still considered low but experts are urging countries around the world to monitor infections in mammals closely in order to be prepared for the worst. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference this week that we should be prepared, despite human cases being low, as 'we cannot assume that will remain the case', as per Fortune.

H5N1 avian flu strain

Cases of the strain H5N1 have already been reported in otters, mink and foxes and reports on how the virus jumped to the mink in a farm in Spain recently are inconclusive. It was only noticed after a sudden increase in animal deaths when nearly four percent died in one week late last year.

Dr. Isabella Monne, a veterinarian at the European Union Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza and Newcastle Disease explained, as per The New York Times:

The mechanism of transmission inside the farm is still unknown, but it’s clear that the virus was able to move.

The mink were swabbed and the samples were analyzed at a Government lab where the H5N1 strain was confirmed. This led to all the animals being culled and the farm workers isolating for 10 days as security measures were tightened across the country.

Since September 2021, the new virus has been detected in 80 million birds and poultry globally and it is also killing more than ever. Millions of chickens and turkeys in the UK were culled or isolated over the winter period, significantly affecting stocks of Christmas turkeys and free-range eggs, as per The Daily Mail.

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Should we be worried?

H5N1 has previously been detected in people with 860 human cases reported to the World Health Organization since 2003. However, the virus does not infect humans easily and most of these cases have been linked to close contact with infected birds, rather than human to human transmission.

Official government guidance issued by the UKHSA states:

Bird flu infections in people from birds usually requires very close contact with an infected bird so the risk to humans is currently considered very low.

However, the guidance goes on to state that when it does occur in humans it ‘can cause serious disease and deaths’, as per UKHSA.

The worst fear is of a human adapted variation that can spread through human contact. If the pathogen gains mutations it could make it easier for the virus to jump to humans and become a global pandemic.

Experts are concerned that mink farms could act as incubators for the disease, Marion Koopmans, head of the department of virology at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam warned, as per The Telegraph:

It didn’t happen this time, and it may not happen, but this is one of the scenarios from which a new pandemic could originate. We are playing with fire.

People are strongly advised not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is highly lethal. However, if people are concerned that they may have come into contact with the virus, the UKHSA does have measures in place to monitor individuals and preventative antiviral drugs to reduce the chances of them becoming unwell.

Sources used:

- Fortune'The spillover of bird flu to mammals must be ‘monitored closely,’ WHO officials warn: ‘We need to be ready to face outbreaks in humans’'

- The Daily Mail 'World Health Organization warns 'we must prepare' for potential human bird flu pandemic as H5N1 avian strain jumps to mammals'

- The New York Times 'What a Bird Flu Outbreak Among Mink Could Mean for Humans'

- The Telegraph 'How worried should we be about avian flu?'

- UKHSA 'An update on avian flu'

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