Bird flu takes another step closer

| 25 February 2021
minute reading time
Factory farm

In the news this week, it’s been reported how another strain of bird flu has infected humans for the first time. Russian officials have confirmed that seven workers at a poultry plant in the south of the country were infected with the H5N8 strain of avian influenza in December. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have been alerted.

Outbreaks of the H5N8 strain have been reported in Russia, China, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe (including the UK) in recent months. While the highly contagious strain is lethal for birds, it had never before been reported to have spread to humans.

The NHS say that four strains of bird flu are a particular cause for concern: H5N1, H5N6, H7N9 and H5N8. But only the first three had infected humans – until now.

  • H5N1 first jumped to humans in 1997, when 18 people in Hong Kong were infected and six died. There was another outbreak in 2003 and since then, a total of 863 cases have been reported and 455 deaths – a death rate of 53 per cent!
  • H7N9 was next, reported for the first time in humans in 2013. A total of 1,568 cases have since been reported to the WHO, of which around 40 per cent died. WHO’s assistant director-general for health, security and the environment, Keiji Fukuda, says: “This is an unusually dangerous virus for humans”.
  • H5N6 was then reported in humans in 2014 and since then 29 cases and nine deaths have been reported.

There have been others, such as the one case of human infection with H7N4 reported in 2018. There will be more and virologists consider a flu pandemic inevitable.

Is a big pandemic coming?

For a bird flu pandemic to occur, a number of things must happen. Firstly, the virus must be able to jump from birds to humans. This has already happened for several strains – now including H5N8. Next, it must become easily spread between people like the common cold or Covid-19. At the moment none of these viruses that have infected people are able to spread between people easily but future mutations could allow them to overcome this hurdle and acquire pandemic potential.

The UK has just had the biggest outbreak of bird flu ever seen with outbreaks in commercial farms and wild birds infected from one end of the country to the other since November last year. Most of the outbreaks were caused by the highly pathogenic H5N8 strain and tens of thousands of birds have been culled in an attempt to stop the spread of disease.

The scramble for a universal flu vaccine has already begun, but there is a far simpler solution. We could just remove the viral reservoir and end factory farming before it ends us.

Play your part in Ending Factory Farming Before It Ends Us. Sign our Open Letter to Boris Johnson urging him to End Factory Farming now.

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
I joined Viva! as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. My scientific training helped me research and write numerous reports, guides and fact sheets for Viva! including Meat the Truth, Fish-Free for Life, One in Nine (breast cancer and diet) and the substantial report on the detrimental health effects of consuming dairy; White Lies. This accompanied Viva!’s report The Dark Side of Dairy which spelt out the inherent cruelty of dairy farming. We were the first UK group to take on the dairy industry in this way, and many of our supporters go vegan after reading these reports.

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