Should I be worried about bird flu?
Most strains of bird flu are poor at infecting humans, with limited numbers of reported cases. This is because the receptors that the virus binds to are not common in humans, especially in the upper airways.
One person has been reported as having contracted bird flu, with UKHSA officials saying that the individual acquired the infection from ‘very close, regular contact with a large number of infected birds, which they kept in and around their home over a prolonged period of time .’
They added that the risk of bird flu to the wider public is ‘very low’, while the Food Standards Agency states that ‘properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, are safe to eat.’
However, there are worries that bird flu viruses could mutate to become better at infecting humans and cause a pandemic. As a result, bird flu is monitored across the world, with countries reporting cases to the World Health Organization.
Dr Raju Misra, who is head of the Museum’s Molecular Biology Laboratories and formerly worked at Public Health England (now UKHSA), says, ‘The first stage of a response to any disease is monitoring, just to see if the disease is present, and if so, which variant it is and if it is one of concern.
‘Once detected, a surveillance program begins to understand how widespread a disease is, and whether there are any hot spots to be concerned about. UKHSA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) work together to monitor for any signs that an outbreak could be developing.
‘It’s a similar strategy that was used for Covid, but bird flu uses many samples taken directly from birds and their faeces, rather than airborne samples. Certain targeted genes are then looked for, and if they are found then the samples are sequenced and compared to a reference database to identify which variant it is.
‘While many are commonly found in the background, there are some which are more concerning and which then need further investigation or action.’