Just as the news headlines about Ebola have dampened down from boiling to a quiet simmer, Avian Flu has leapt back into the news. The Telegraph headline today sums up the media reporting: “Bird flu strain which can be passed to humans detected in Holland”. Meanwhile, even closer to home, the BBC reports that a case of bird flu has been confirmed at a duck breeding farm in East Yorkshire. The ducks are being slaughtered and a 10km (6 mile) exclusion zone is in place. It all sounds as if an apocalypse along the lines of the “Contagious” movie has landed in Europe, but the truth is far less exciting. Avian Flu is a viral disease that is highly infectious between birds. This is the single fact that needs to be stressed more than anything else. It is a bird disease, and the risk to humans is minimal.
The strain of avian flu that is in the news is similar as the one which was first seen in Hong Kong in 1997, and has been appearing spasmodically ever since. That one was known as H5N1(H-five-N-one), a name that describes the type of proteins on the virus particles. The Netherlands strain is the H5N8. The strain in Yorkshire has been identified as an H5 strain but further details are not yet available. It is true that humans can be infected by such strains of the virus, but the risk of this is so small as to be almost negligible.
Hundreds of millions of birds have died because the disease spreads rapidly from bird to bird, and because authorities react to viral outbreaks by carrying out mass slaughtering of poultry flocks in an attempt to eliminate the virus. When humans have been infected, the virus has not spread from person to person. It has remained as a bird virus only, with humans only occasionally getting in the way, usually when they are working in close proximity to infected birds when they inhale viral particles. If Avian Flu reached the UK, everyone working with poultry would know to be ultra-careful about hygiene, so the risk of humans dying of bird flu would be minimal. There is no such thing as a human pandemic of bird flu.
Readers may then wonder why there seems to be a type of hysteria around Avian Flu. The reason for this is the potential for a change in the virus which could indeed lead to a human pandemic. The avian virus could mutate into a new strain of virus that is highly infectious to humans. If this happened, the new Human Flu virus would spread across the world rapidly. This is what happened in 1918, when 50 million people worldwide died in a flu pandemic and the authorities are justifiably concerned about the risk of a repeat of this.