Bird flu UK 2022: symptoms to look out for, Defra Prevention Zone explained - can humans catch it?

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The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says the risk to public health from the virus is very low

An avian influenza Prevention Zone has been declared across the UK after an increase in the number of detections of bird flu in wild birds and on commercial premises.

But what does the Prevention Zone mean, can humans get bird flu, and what are the symptoms? Here’s what you need to know.

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What is bird flu?

Bird flu, also known as avian flu, is a type of influenza that spreads among birds.

There are lots of different strains of bird flu virus. Most of them don’t infect humans, but there are four strains that have caused concern in recent years:

  • H5N1 (since 1997)
  • H7N9 (since 2013)
  • H5N6 (since 2014)
  • H5N8 (since 2016)

Although H5N1, H7N9 and H5N6 don’t infect people easily and aren’t usually spread from human to human, several people have been infected around the world, leading to a number of deaths.

In February 2021 H5N8 was also found to have infected a small number of people for the first time, in Russia.

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The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says the risk to public health from the virus is very lowThe UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says the risk to public health from the virus is very low
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says the risk to public health from the virus is very low | Kim Mogg/NationalWorld

What is the Prevention Zone?

The Chief Veterinary Officers from England, Scotland and Wales have declared an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) across Great Britain in order to mitigate the risk of the disease spreading amongst poultry and captive birds.

This means it is now a legal requirement for all bird keepers in Great Britain to follow strict biosecurity measures to help protect their flocks from the threat of avian flu.

Keepers with more than 500 birds will need to restrict access for non-essential people on their sites, workers will need to change clothing and footwear before entering bird enclosures, and site vehicles will need to be cleaned and disinfected regularly to limit the risk of the disease spreading. Backyard owners with smaller numbers of poultry including chickens, ducks and geese must also take steps to limit the risk of the disease spreading to their animals.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) advises that the risk to public health from the virus is very low and the Food Standards Agency advises that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for consumers. Properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, are also safe to eat.

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The introduction of the AIPZ comes after the UK has faced its largest ever outbreak of avian flu, with 190 cases confirmed since late October 2021, and over 30 of these confirmed since the beginning of October 2022.

The East of England has been particularly badly hit with outbreaks in poultry and captive birds, but there have also been outbreaks in the south west and in wild birds at multiple sites across the UK.

How is bird flu spread to humans?

Bird flu is spread by close contact with an infected bird (dead or alive), including:

  • touching infected birds
  • touching droppings or bedding
  • killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking

Markets where live birds are sold can also be a source of bird flu. The NHS advises avoiding visiting these markets if you’re travelling to countries that have had an outbreak of bird flu.

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You can check health advice for the country you’re visiting on the TravelHealthPro website.

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

What are the symptoms of bird flu?

According to the NHS, 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.

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

However, getting treatment quickly and using antiviral medicine may prevent complications and reduce the risk of developing severe illness. You should 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.

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