Bird flu 2023: Symptoms, where does it come from, and what to do
The UK is facing its largest-ever outbreak of bird flu after reports said the disease had spread to mammals such as foxes and otters.
Latest figures show it has killed around 208 million birds worldwide, with at least 200 cases recorded in mammals.
Avian flu has been found to affect a number of other mammals around the world, including grizzly bears in America and mink in Spain, as well as seals and dolphins.
Now public health chiefs are warning about this mutation in mammals potentially spreading to humans, but the risk to the public is very small.
The Animal & Plant Health Agency’s (APHA) director of scientific services, Professor Ian Brown, says the UK’s national avian influenza task force is stepping up its surveillance of mammalian cases, including a genome analysis of the virus.
He added that they will be closely monitoring the spread in wild bird populations worldwide.
Almost 15 million domestic birds, including poultry, have died from the disease while more than 193 million have been killed.
Cases have been found in Cheshire, Durham and Cornwall in England; Powys in Wales; Shetland, the Inner Hebrides and Fife in Scotland.
What is bird flu and how is it transmitted?
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said wild birds migrating to the UK from mainland Europe in the winter months can transmit the disease and this can lead to cases in poultry and other captive birds.
Birds can become infected with the avian influenza virus through contact with infected birds or waste products. Wild birds, including waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese) can carry and transmit the virus without showing any signs of disease, according to Paul Walton, head of Habitats and Species at RSPB Scotland.
What Are the Symptoms of Avian Flu in Birds?
There are two types of avian influenza, with highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) being the more serious. In birds it is often fatal.
Signs of HPAI in birds include a sudden and rapid increase in the number of birds found dead, multiple affected birds in the same coop or airspace with clinical signs such as a swollen head, closed and excessively watering eyes, head and body tremors, drooping of the wings and /or Leg dragging, twisting of the head and neck, and swelling and blueing of the comb and wattles.
Other signs include bleeding from the thighs and under the skin of the neck, loss of appetite or a marked decrease in food intake, sudden increase or decrease in water intake, shortness of breath, sneezing, a noticeable rise in body temperature, discolored or watery stools, and cessation or significant reduction in egg production.
Bird flu across the UK
Earlier this week it was reported that an outbreak of bird flu has “killed thousands of wild birds”, according to the RSPB, who say Scotland is being “seriously hit”.
There are also over a thousand confirmed cases of bird flu in England, with cases also confirmed in Wales and Northern Ireland.
A case of bird flu was diagnosed on a poultry farm in Norfolk last year.
All of the birds at the farm in Gayton, near King’s Lynn, were ‘humanely culled’ after the infection was discovered.
What can the government do?
The RSPB is urging UK governments “to develop a response plan as a matter of urgency”.
The charity says: “We want coordinated monitoring and testing of wild and domestic birds, safe disposal of carcasses and protection of vulnerable bird populations. We also want action to be taken to stop the unnecessary disturbance of wild birds affected by the virus.
“In the longer term, we want to see much more importance given to prioritizing and funding seabird conservation. This would help make our seabird populations more resilient to these diseases and the other challenges they face.”
What is the risk to the public?
The risk to human health from the virus is very low and food standards bodies advise that avian flu poses a very low food safety risk for UK consumers, according to Defra.
People are advised not to touch or pick up dead or sick birds they find and instead report them to the relevant hotline.
According to Defra, there is no risk from consuming properly cooked poultry products, including eggs.
Is It Still Okay to Feed Birds in Your Backyard?
The RSPB said everyone should practice good hygiene when feeding garden birds, and also recommended “cleaning outdoor bird feeders regularly with a mild disinfectant, removing old bird seed, spreading out the bird feeders as widely as possible and keeping the to wash hands”.
UK Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss said people who want to keep chickens and feed wild birds need to make sure everything is kept “scrupulously clean” and “absolutely separate” to avoid infecting their own flocks.
What to do if you see a sick or injured bird
The RSPB said if people find dead waterfowl, gulls or raptors, or five or more other species in one place, they should report them to the Defra hotline on 03459 335577 or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840.
The RSPB also advises people living in bird flu areas to keep their dogs on a leash as the virus can be transmitted to pets.