Outbreaks of a highly infectious strain of bird flu have been reported in several countries including Poland, Sweden, and France.
Authorities in the Netherlands and Northern France have killed hundreds of thousands of ducks in an attempt to contain the strain, called H5N8. Last month, German authorities also ordered 16,000 turkeys and 92,000 chickens to be slaughtered.
As a precaution, the UK government’s chief veterinarian Nigel Gibbens has declared a “prevention zone” which requires all bird keepers in the country, including poultry farmers and those with pet birds, to keep their animals inside for 30 days.
“We are closely monitoring the situation across Europe and have scaled up surveillance in response to the heightened risk,” he said in a statement.
The strain hasn’t been detected in any British farms yet. If it was, all the birds would have to be destroyed under disease control requirements.
What is bird flu?
Avian influenza — colloquially known as bird flu — refers to the flu viruses that occur naturally in wild birds like ducks and geese. They are very contagious and can also infect poultry and other animals.
These viruses mutate constantly; they also can swap genes with one another. As a result, there are multiple different types with varying degrees of infectiousness, and some are also more dangerous than others.
H5N8 is a highly pathogenic strain, which means that it is often fatal for birds and it spreads much easier and more quickly than some other strains.
Can I catch it?
Transmission to humans is rare, but it can happen. People who catch it usually have had direct contact with infected animals or contaminated environments, such as handling dead, diseased birds before cooking. Human to human transmission of bird flu is even more rare, and there’s no evidence that the virus can spread to people through properly and thoroughly cooked food.
If you are unlucky enough to get infected, however, symptoms can include a high fever, pneumonia, sore throat, muscle aches and sometimes even seizures. According to the World Health Organization, the mortality rate for bird flu in humans in 60%.
In most cases, bird flu develops into a serious disease that should be treated quickly in hospital, and it may require intensive care. Antiviral medicines are recommended to reduce the severity of the illness.
Currently, the threat to humans from H5N8 remains very low, however, according to Public Health England (PHE) — so there’s no need to panic yet.