By Laura Hannot, Biodiversity and environmental journalist

TWO poultry workers who tested positive for bird flu this month in Britain are a reminder that avian flu has persisted. Both individuals contracted the disease on a farm in England. They did not experience any symptoms and have since tested negative.

They both contracted the H5N1 strand of bird flu. Unfortunately, this strand of avian flu has been widespread globally for many years, endangering wild birds and poultry farms.

“The H5N1 avian influenza virus emerged in the 1990s as a result of poultry farming,” said Paule-Émilie Ruy, a PhD student working on avian influenza viruses in the Republic of Ireland. 

“There is a clear link between the number of outbreaks and the growth of the poultry sector. The problem is that there are too many birds in one place, that’s why the viruses are here.” 

The H5N1 strand of bird flu is highly transmittable between bird populations. However, the transmission risk from birds to humans is deemed low to moderate by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

One of the workers inhaled the virus from materials on the farm while working. It is unclear how the second worker contracted it, said a spokesperson for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

“Globally there is no evidence of the spread of this strain from person to person, but we know that viruses evolve all the time and we remain vigilant for any evidence of a changing risk to the population,” said Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Advisor at UKHSA.

Close testing for avian flu is in place in the UK. Poultry workers regularly take swabs of their nose and throat and also have finger prick blood tests. The UKHSA is monitoring workers in the hope of a better understanding of the risk of avian flu to humans. 

In recent years, bird flu seems to have a presence all year round across the world and experts are concerned about the repercussions such a virus could have on our way of living. 

“In 1997, there was an epidemic of avian flu H5N1 in Hong Kong,” said Paule-Émilie Ruy. “Out of 18 cases, there were six deaths. It was an important number.” 

Other organisations such as Birdwatch Ireland, who specialise in the protection of bird species, see avian flu as a bigger threat if nothing is done about it.

“One of the fears, although it is very unlikely, is that it could become another Covid for humans because this disease can spread to humans,” said Niall Hatch, head of Communications and Development for Birdwatch Ireland

“There are discussions around the hunting of birds and whether it’s safe to have dogs on beaches when they might go over to bird carcasses.” 

To help avoid contracting the virus, members of the public should stay away from dead or sick birds and report it to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

[asp_product id="2371"]