Britain's biggest ever avian flu outbreak infects mammals including otters and ... trends now
Britain's biggest ever outbreak of bird flu has spilled over into mammals, sparking fears the virus could be one step closer to sweeping humans.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) has detected the H5N1 strain flu in five foxes and four otters in the UK since 2021. All are thought to have been struck down after feeding on infected dead birds.
It raises the prospect that the pathogen could acquire troublesome mutations that allow it to spread much easier between humans, helping it clear the biggest hurdle that has stopped it from spreading like Covid.
Leading experts have warned that the spread of bird flu poses a global 'risk' until it's brought under control.
However, officials insist the UK is still 'a long way' from bird flu taking off in a similar fashion as Covid.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) found avian flu in nine foxes and otters in the UK who are believed to have fed on dead birds infected with the virus (stock image)
Seven of the UK's animal avian flu cases detected were in 2022, including one fox in Cheshire and two in Cornwall, as well as one otter in each of Shetland and the Isle of Skye and two in Fife. Pictured: European otter
In 2021, there was one case in a fox in Durham — marking the first case of avian flu in the UK among animals other than birds. Pictured: Fox on Downing Street on January 31 2023
Professor Ian Brown, scientific services director, said Defra and the devolved administrations are supporting a programme for actively looking for mammals that might scavenge and feed on wild birds
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) reported in December that Apha had tested 20 mammals and eight were positive for avian flu.
This figure was this year updated to nine after a fox in Powys, Wales, was confirmed to be carrying the virus.
Seven of the animal cases detected were in 2022, including one fox in Cheshire and two in Cornwall, as well as one otter in each of Shetland and the Isle of Skye and two in Fife.
In 2021, there was one case in a fox in Durham — marking the first case of avian flu in the UK among animals other than birds.
The animals are believed to have eaten dead wild birds infected with the virus.
Experts have said the risk to the public is low.
All of the cases are thought to have been 'dead-end infections', meaning the mammals have not transmitted the virus to any other animals.
Professor Ian Brown, director of scientific services at Apha, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the virus is 'on the march' and that it's 'almost remarkable' that a single strain was behind the uptick in cases.
He said: 'We've recently detected events both here in and around the world — evidence that this virus can on certain occasions jump into other species.
'To be clear, though, this is still a bird virus essentially, that wants to be in birds.'
The infected mammals have scavenged on birds that are unwell or dead due to avian flu and being exposed to 'high quantities of virus' which is leading to some spillover infection, Professor Brown said.
Prof Brown said it was 'difficult to control the disease in wild birds' but 'what we can do is effectively control the disease in poultry' (stock inage)
Alan Gosling (pictured), a retired engineer in Devon, caught the virus after his ducks, some of which lived inside his home, became infected. No one else caught the virus
'What we don't have any evidence of is that it can then go from fox to fox or otter to otter, so these are what we call dead-end infections,' he added.
What is it?
Avian flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds.
In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans through close contact with a dead or alive infected bird.
This includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding. People can also catch bird flu if they kill or prepare infected poultry for eating.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
As they cluster together to breed, the virus spreads rapidly and is then carried to other parts of the globe.
New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shore birds, waders and waterfowl head off to Alaska to breed and mix with migratory birds from the US. Others go west and infect European species.
What strain is currently spreading?
So far the new virus has been detected in some 80million birds and poultry globally since September 2021 — double the previous record the year before.
Not only is the virus spreading at speed, it is also killing at an unprecedented level, leading some experts to say this is the deadliest variant so far.
Millions of chickens and turkeys in the UK have been culled or put into lockdown, affecting the availability of Christmas