Bird flu strain H5N8 has been identified on a duck farm in England and in chickens at a farm in the Netherlands. Should people be scared about a new pandemic? Experts say, no.
Where are the latest cases?
On November 17, bird flu was confirmed on a duck farm in East Yorkshire. About 6,000 ducks will be killed and a 6-mile surveillance zone is going up around the farm. The emergence comes just a day after bird flu was detected in the Netherlands at an egg farm. According to the BBC, the Dutch government has imposed a three-day ban on poultry and eggs transport. Officials are currently figuring out whether the two cases are connected. Earlier this month, bird flu also appeared in Germany.
Should I be afraid?
Not right now. First, it should be noted that there are several strains of bird flu, or avian influenza, and the recent strains have only so far emerged in birds, not humans. The Dutch and German governments determined their strains of the flu are both H5N8, a highly contagious virus that has never been found in humans. The British government has not yet said what strain of bird flu is circulating in the duck farm, but they have confirmed that it’s not H5N1, which can infect humans.
So what’s the big deal?
Farms with H5N8 outbreaks can face serious economic losses.
So it hasn’t affected humans before. Does that mean it won’t—ever?
Experts cannot completely rule out the possibility of human infection. “This particular strain has not been known to infect humans but, based on experience with H5N1, we know that H5 viruses have that capacity,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Center for Health Security. “Thus far, avian influenza viruses have very limited human-to-human transmission capacity, so the general public need not panic, however poultry handlers may be at risk for infection. It will be important to understand the dynamics of this outbreak and understand the potential of H5N8 to infect humans.”
What about H5N1 makes it so much more worrying?
H5N1 is the strain that can spread to humans from birds, and it’s infected more than 600 people from 15 countries since November 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. About 60% of people who have contracted the strain have died. The majority of human cases are among people with direct or close contact with sick or dead infected poultry, and the disease does not efficiently transmit from person to person. However, if that were to change, scientists say we’d have a serious problem on our hands.
Is there a treatments or vaccine for bird flu?
Not exactly. In Nov. 2013, the FDA approved a H5N1 vaccine intended for the National Stockpile and not for commercial use. The CDC has told TIME that the vaccine is not very effective and would likely require more than one dose. Researchers are working on other vaccines for bird flu and its various strains, though none are currently approved. Right now, preventing the spread of infection is the best bet for keeping cases low.
“Avian influenza will always be a major infectious disease threat. Certain avian influenza viruses—such as H5N1 and H7N9—have very high case fatality rates and are leading contenders for wider spread amongst the human population,” says Adalja.
And while the current cases of bird flu shouldn’t freak you out, it is important for the global community to pay attention to the various strains and support vaccine and drug development.