Can humans catch bird flu? Avian influenza symptoms, and what causes virus - amid ‘biggest ever’ UK wave

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Hundreds of cases of bird flu have been detected across the UK, which has led to free range eggs no longer being available in supermarkets

A record breaking wave of bird flu cases has been recorded across Great Britain since autumn 2021.

The virus has been recorded in more than 100 locations across England, Scotland and Wales and has led to the culling of thousands of birds.

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It has forced Britain’s chief veterinary officers and the Government to implement a Covid-style ‘bird lockdown’ across the UK in a bid to control the wave of cases.

So how did bird flu reach the UK - and is it harmful to humans?

Here is everything you need to know.

Bird flu can be carried into the UK by migratory birds, such as wigeons (image: Shutterstock)Bird flu can be carried into the UK by migratory birds, such as wigeons (image: Shutterstock)
Bird flu can be carried into the UK by migratory birds, such as wigeons (image: Shutterstock) | Shutterstock

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is a form of the influenza virus - the same family of viruses which causes flu in humans.

It is a completely different virus to coronaviruses - the category Covid-19 belongs to.

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Also known as avian influenza, it is so called because it tends to affect birds more than humans.

The virus either has low pathogenicity - i.e. it does not damage the health of its host much - or high pathogenicity, whereby it can be fatal.

While birds with low pathogenicity tend to have minor breathing problems and might not produce as many eggs, those with highly pathogenic strains can display a whole host of symptoms.

These include: unresponsiveness, closed and excessively watery eyes, a swollen head and tremoring.

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Exclusion zones have been set up near Droitwich Spa and Wrexham in a bid to restrict further transmission of bird flu (image: AFP/Getty Images)Exclusion zones have been set up near Droitwich Spa and Wrexham in a bid to restrict further transmission of bird flu (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Exclusion zones have been set up near Droitwich Spa and Wrexham in a bid to restrict further transmission of bird flu (image: AFP/Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

Bird flu only tends to become a major problem in the UK when birds reared for food, such as chickens and turkeys, get infected.

Many thousands of birds have already had to be put down to stop the spread of the virus to other flocks - while housing restrictions have stopped free range eggs from going on sale.

Last winter’s outbreak was also a big one and meant birds had to be kept indoors for a number of weeks by law because there were so many wild birds carrying the virus.

But major outbreaks tend not to happen every year.

If you find a dead or visibly sick bird, especially if it’s a duck, goose, swan or a bird of prey, you should contact DEFRA.

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It is hoped that the current wave of infections will disappear due to sunnier, warmer spring weather - conditions which stop the virus from being as active.

How has bird flu come to the UK?

Bird flu tends to come to the UK when birds migrate to the southern hemisphere from Russia and northern regions of Asia ahead of the winter months.

The virus circulates naturally among wild birds.

Migrating ducks commonly seen in and around UK ponds during the winter, like mallards and wigeons, as well as geese are currently believed to be bringing it to the UK and Europe.

Scientists are especially interested in this year’s outbreak because it appears the strain of the virus is different to what it has been in recent winters.

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Is bird flu harmful to humans?

Indeed, the UK Health Security Agency describes the risk to the general public as very low.

There is also very little risk of bird flu infecting you via eggs or poultry, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

However, in January 2022 a 79-year-old man from Devon caught the virus from his flock of ducks - all 160 of whom have had to be culled.

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Alan Gosling was forced to remain indoors to avoid spreading avian influenza, while his family have set up a GoFundMe page to raise £10,000 needed for the disinfection of his house and land.

Other human beings have been infected by the virus in the past and most cases have been in people who keep poultry or tend to be in close proximity to it.

In October, Reuters reported there had been a jump in the number of human infections reported in China, with 21 people infected, one critically.

Scientists said a strain had mutated to the extent that it could prove more infectious to humans.

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But this number of infections was much lower than the amount recorded in the country in 2017, when hundreds of people were infected.

Many were seriously ill and at least six people died.

China rears the most amount of poultry in the world and is a top producer of ducks, which can be especially susceptible to flu viruses.

Russia also recorded cases in February 2021, with seven workers at a poultry plant becoming unwell.

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How to avoid catching bird flu

The NHS says the only way a human can catch bird flu is through close contact with an infected bird.

It advised the general public to avoid: touching infected birds, touching droppings or bedding as well as killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking.

Symptoms of bird flu in humans include:

  • A very high temperature or feeling hot or shivery
  • Aching muscles
  • Headache
  • A cough or shortness of breath
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sickness
  • Stomach pain
  • Chest pain
  • Bleeding from the nose and gums
  • Conjunctivitis

These symptoms can take three to five days to appear after you’ve been infected.

If you think you’ve caught bird flu, the NHS said you should seek out medical treatment as soon as possible.

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