Even though H5N1 bird flu poses low risk to humans, we must prepare, WHO says

Humans are at low risk from H5N1 bird flu, but we must prepare
Sick chicken, photo: Canva

The recent spread of the H5N1 bird flu virus from birds to mammals should be monitored, but the risk to humans is low, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

H5N1 has spread among farms and wild birds for 25 years, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, but the recent reports of infections in sea lions, mink, otters and other mammals “need to be monitored closely”.

The virus had also jumped to humans. According to the WHO, there were 868 reported human H5N1 cases in the past twenty years: more than of the infected humans died.

In January, bird flu was detected in a nine-year-old girl in Ecuador. The condition of the girl was “improving,” Michael Ryan, WHO emergencies director, said. He added that the intense spreading of bird flu among mammals “creates the chance that this virus can evolve”.

“For the moment, WHO assesses the risk to humans as low,” Tedros said, but “we cannot assume that will remain the case, and we must prepare for any change in the status quo.” 

Europe has been experiencing its worst H5N1 bird flu virus outbreak since late 2021, with North and South America having a number of severe outbreaks as well. Authorities have killed tens of millions of turkeys, ducks, chickens and other birds on farms in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

The global outbreak -which according to virologist Thijs Kuiken has become worse due to intensive bird farming– is also responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of wild birds.

“Normally, wild birds only carry the low-pathogenic variant. In intensive chicken farming, this mild flu mutated into a serious variant,” Kuijken said. 

According to Tedros, countries should “strengthen surveillance in settings where humans, farmed or wild animals interact.”

   

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