By Dr Justine Butler, Head of Research, Viva!
The H3N8 bird flu virus has been found in a four-year-old boy from the central province of Henan in China. Health authorities say he had a fever and other flu symptoms, and had been in contact with chickens and crows raised at his home. Most people infected with bird flu have had contact with sick or dead birds.
The number of bird flu strains jumping from birds to humans is causing concern. The H5N1 sub-type was first seen in humans in 1997, but since then 863 cases have been reported with 455 deaths – a rate of 53%. Since 2013, there have been 1,568 human cases of the strain H7N9, with 616 deaths. Other viruses making the jump include H5N6 in 2014, H9N2 in 2015 and H7N4 in 2018. In 2021, H5N8 was detected in poultry workers in Russia and a man in China became the first human case with H10N3. There will be more and scientists consider a flu pandemic inevitable unless we do something to stop the spread.
For a bird flu pandemic to occur, the virus must be able to jump from birds to humans. This has already happened for several strains – now including H3N8. Next, it must become easily spread between people like the common cold or Covid-19. At the moment bird flu viruses are not able to spread easily between people. However, scientists say that H5N1, for example, may be as few as three mutations away from becoming more easily transmissible. As this is such a deadly disease, the consequences would be catastrophic.
The UK is currently experiencing the biggest outbreak of bird flu ever seen with over 100 outbreaks of H5N1 in commercial farms from one end of the country to the other. Millions of birds have been culled in an attempt to stop the spread of disease, but this has failed as cases continue to be reported, clustering in areas where there is a high density of poultry farming. There are over 26 billion chickens in the world – more than three birds for every single person on the planet.
This isn’t the first time an animal illness threatened to harm humans. Over the last 100 years or so all viral pandemics, including the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, HIV and Covid-19, have come from animals. It’s thought that the 1889 Russian flu pandemic, that killed one million people out of a world population of 1.5 billion, may have been caused by a variant of H3N8. It’s also been suggested it may have been caused by a coronavirus; four coronaviruses have been circulating in humans for decades causing 15% to 30% of seasonal colds. All these viruses are of animal origin. In fact, three in four of the world’s new or emerging infectious diseases come from animals and are largely transmitted through trading wildlife (both legally and illegally) and factory farming.
Factory farms provide an ideal breeding ground for a mutating virus. Viva! have been into these farms and exposed the horrific conditions chickens and pigs are forced to endure during their short lives. Over one billion chickens are slaughtered for their meat in the UK every year and around 95% are intensively reared on factory farms. We are handing viruses the perfect opportunity to mutate into more deadly forms. We need to remove the viral reservoir and end factory farming, before it ends us!
For more detailed information about bird flu see viva.org.uk/birdflu.