Person infected with bird flu strain never seen in humans in UK

Preparations continue for a cull of chickens at Craigies Poultry Farm near Dunfermline in Scotland, where a "mild strain" of bird flu has been confirmed.  Andrew Milligan/PA  12-Jan-2016
The case was identified in the South West Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA

A person has contracted bird flu in a UK first, public health officials have confirmed.

Although seen elsewhere in the world, the strain of the bird flu identified in the South West of England has never before been confirmed in a human in the UK.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has stressed the risk to the wider public continues to be very low - but warned people not to touch sick or dead birds.

The person 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.

Bird to human transmission of avian flu is very rare and has only happened a small number of times in the UK.

All contacts of the individual, including those who visited the premises, have been traced and there is no evidence of onward spread of the infection to anyone else. The individual is well and self-isolating, the UKHSA said.

The agency was unable to provide further information about where exactly in the South West the case had been found.

What is bird flu and how does it spread?

Avian flu, also known as bird flu, is a type of influenza which spreads among birds. The UK has recently seen a large number of outbreaks and incidents of avian influenza in birds across the country of the H5N1 strain and Animal and Plant health Agency (APHA) and the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer have issued alerts to bird owners. 

Some strains of bird flu can pass from birds to people, but this is extremely rare. It usually requires close contact with an infected bird, so the risk to humans is generally considered very low. Human to human transmission of bird flu is very rare.

The case was detected after APHA identified an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in the infected person's flock of birds.

UKHSA swabbed the person and detected low levels of flu. Further laboratory analysis revealed the virus was the ‘H5’ type, found in birds. At this point it has not been possible to confirm this is a H5N1 infection (the strain which is currently circulating in birds in the UK).

The World Health Organisation has been notified and the infected birds have all been culled.

The infected person had come into regular close contact with a large number of birds with the virus Credit: Chris Radburn/PA

Professor Isabel Oliver, Chief Scientific Officer at UKHSA, said: “While the risk of avian flu to the general public is very low, we know that some strains do have the potential to spread to humans and that’s why we have robust systems in place to detect these early and take action.

"Currently there is no evidence that this strain detected in the UK can spread from person to person, but we know that viruses evolve all the time and we continue to monitor the situation closely. We have followed up all of this individual’s contacts and have not identified any onward spread.

“It remains critical that people do not touch sick or dead birds, and that they follow the DEFRA advice about reporting.”

'This is a very rare event'

UKHSA says it has strict procedures in place to minimise risk - with contact tracing, daily checks, offers of anti-viral treatment and swabbing of people without symptoms all in place.

UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss said: “While avian influenza is highly contagious in birds, this is a very rare event and is very specific to the circumstances on this premises.

“We took swift action to limit the spread of the disease at the site in question, all infected birds have been humanely culled, and cleansing and disinfection of the premises is underway. This is a reminder that stringent cleanliness when keeping animals is important.

“We are seeing a growing number of cases in birds on both commercial farms and in backyard flocks across the country. Implementing scrupulous biosecurity measures will help keep your birds safe.”