The risk of the avian flu outbreak in Israel spilling over into people is real and “very worrying,” according to a top epidemiologist.
Prof. Amnon Lahad, chairman of Israel’s National Council for Community Health, told the Times of Israel that he was following the bird outbreak that killed thousands of wild birds.
“The spread of avian flu is very worrying, especially as it infects chickens, not just wild birds. It has made the transition from wildlife to farm animals and I hope it won’t take the next step to human, ”he said on Wednesday.
Most strains of bird flu do not infect humans. However, four strains cause concern: H5N1 since 1997, H7N9 since 2013, H5N6 since 2014 and H5N8 since 2016. Since little is known about the current infections, the possibility of a jump on humans must be taken seriously.
He said that after a mutation there could be a leap on humans, but it is also entirely possible for the flu to cross species without a mutation.
In terms of the method of transmission, it is “very unlikely” that people will get avian flu from eating infected chickens or eggs obtained from an infected bird, Lahad said. This is because influenza, like the coronavirus, usually enters the body through the airways, not the intestines.
Prof Amnon Lahad (Hebrew University)
However, Lahad warned: “It could be transmitted through contact with sick birds – not by touching or eating, but by the same method we know from COVID, namely droplets that get into the airways,” he said.
He found that although the flu gets into the body through the airways, the secretion can come from other systems. This means that when people become infected, it could happen when they inhale particles that have been loosened from freshly excreted feces, such as when a person removes feces and inhales such particles, Lahad said.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health warned Israelis to take precautions during the avian flu outbreak and urged the public to avoid contact with sick or injured birds and not to hunt such animals.
In addition, people should only buy chickens and eggs from regulated places that have control stamps. According to the ministry, “care should be taken to cook eggs and chickens thoroughly, maintain hygiene and wash hands after contact with meat or eggs”.
Preventing possible transmission to humans is one of the guiding principles behind the Department of Agriculture’s decision to kill large numbers of birds – around 700,000 birds have been killed in the past few weeks.
Culling has proven effective in the past. For example, after the first known human transmission in Hong Kong in 1997, with 18 cases with six deaths after the cull, no further cases were recorded.
However, bird experts emphasized that culling by no means ensures the end of the infection.
“This culling is the best that humans can do, but nothing is a guarantee,” said ornithologist Prof. Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University of the Times of Israel. “The flu can spread among birds and spread to humans.”
Israel is on an important migratory route and birds could spread the flu far beyond the country, experts believe. The disease has reached Israeli farms.
Illustrative image: A photo of Israel’s 2006 avian flu outbreak, showing Ministry of Agriculture officials burying the carcasses of dead turkeys in Kibbutz En Hashlosha in the western Negev. (Chameleon Eye via iStock by Getty Images)
Lahad, chairman of the Hebrew University’s family medicine department and head of the Jerusalem district for Clalit Health Services, said Israelis should avoid contact with birds and avoid visits to farms with chickens and other birds. If they have cats bringing home dead birds, he warned, they should be careful to dispose of them with gloves and to handle them at arm’s length.
While Lahad said it was impossible to predict the likelihood of bird flu transmission to humans or the likely virulence of the disease, he noted that it has caused serious illness in the past. Since this year’s flu vaccines did not include specific protection against avian flu, they will likely offer minimal coverage.
When asked about the likelihood of human contagion if the flu skips the species, he said, “Influenza does not spread like Omicron, it can spread at the speed of Delta, but in the past avian flu specifically did not spread that way off quickly. Still, we don’t want this to reach people. We have Omicron – we really don’t need another infectious disease. “