The first human case of a deadly strain of bird flu in the UK has been detected in a person living in the South West of England as the country faces its largest ever outbreak in animals, health officials have said.
Britain’s ‘patient zero’ caught the H5N1 virus after ‘very close and regular’ contact with a large number of infected birds which they kept in and around their home, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
It is the first ever human case of H5N1 — which kills up to half of the people it infects — recorded in the UK and fewer than 1,000 people have ever been diagnosed with the strain globally since it emerged in the late 1990s.
No more details about the individual have been released, but officials said they were in good health and currently in self-isolation. All of the patient’s infected birds have been culled.
Their close personal contacts, including people who visited the premises, have also been traced and there is ‘no evidence’ of the infection having spread to anyone else, the UKHSA said.
The current H5N1 outbreak is the largest bird flu crisis ever recorded in Britain — with officials saying more than half a million poultry have had to be culled as part of efforts to control the virus.
Shocking images show thousands of dead chickens being dumped into a truck after an outbreak at Ivy House Farm in Lincolnshire in December, with animals’ rights activists claiming the true death toll has been upwards of 2million over the last few months.
The outbreak has been going on for weeks and sparked fears of a turkey shortage in the run-up to Christmas.
Bird to human transmission of bird flu — also known as avian flu — is rare and has only occurred a small number of times in the UK. However, the public is being urged not to touch sick or dead birds.
Subsequent human-to-human transmission of avian influenza is also rare and the risk of a major outbreak in people is deemed to be even lower.
But the development comes with fears about infectious pathogens at an all-time high in the UK after two years of the Covid pandemic, reignited by the latest surge in Omicron infections.
The case was first detected after the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, identified an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in the person’s flock of birds.
As a precaution, UKHSA swabbed the person involved and detected low levels of flu. Further lab analysis showed the virus was the ‘H5’ type found in birds but have UKHSA said it has not been possible to confirm that this is the same H5N1 infection currently circulating in birds Britain.
The birds the person had contact with have now been culled, health authorities confirmed.
UKHSA chief scientific officer Professor Isabel Oliver, 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.’
The World Health Organization has been notified about the development.
The last recorded case of bird flu in the UK was in 2006 but this was for the H7 version of the virus. In total there have been less than five cases of bird flu in humans recorded in Britain, according to UKHSA.
Reacting to the news Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said there was no cause for public alarm about the human transmission and that poultry products, such as eggs, remained safe.
‘Transfer of avian flu to people is rare as it requires direct contact between an infected, usually dead, bird and the individual concerned,’ he said.
‘It is a risk for the handlers who are charged with the disposal of carcasses after an outbreak but the virus does not spread generally and poses little threat. It does not behave like the seasonal flu we are used to.
‘Despite the current heightened concern around viruses there is no risk to chicken meat or eggs and no need for public alarm.’
Professor Mike Tildesley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the University of Warwick, added: ‘This is clearly going to be big news but the key thing is that human infections with H5N1 are really rare and they almost always occur as a result of direct, long term contact with poultry.
‘There has never been any evidence of sustained human to human transmission of H5N1 so at present I wouldn’t consider this to be a significant public health risk.’
According to World Health Organization data, as of October 2021 there have been 863 cases of H5N1 in humans reported globally since 2003, of which 456, 52 per cent, were fatal.
Professor Paul Wigley, an expert in avian infection and immunity at the University of Liverpool also said concern of human transmission should be low, especially considering the infected individual appears to have caught a H5 strain.
‘Avian influenza such as the H5 serotype is largely adapted to infect birds and so is very unlikely to be transmitted from person-to-person.
‘The risk of wider infection in the general public remains low.’
The case comes after a large number of outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds across the UK, with alerts having been issued to bird owners for months.
The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said: ‘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.’
Only one confirmed infection H5N1 in humans was reported in 2021. This case occurred in India and was fatal.
The UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss has warned poultry owners to implement ‘scrupulous biosecurity’ to keep their animals safe from the virus.
Dr Middlemiss said there are currently 40 infected premises in the UK – including 33 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland, and two in Northern Ireland.
Bird owners have been told to keep all animals housed inside and away from wild birds who may have migrated from abroad and brought the flu with them.
Farmers must cleanse and disinfect clothing, equipment and vehicles before and after contact with their birds.
And they are instructed to change their footwear if possible and clean them thoroughly if not when entering poultry sheds.
Bird housing must be disinfected thoroughly and all feed and water must be kept inaccessible to wild birds.
If there are any concerns or signs of disease, farmers are told to seek prompt advice from their vet.
Dr Middlemiss said: ‘We have taken swift action to limit the spread of the disease including introducing housing measures.
‘However, we are seeing a growing number of bird flu cases both on commercial farms and in backyard birds right across the country.
‘Many poultry keepers have excellent biosecurity standards but the number of cases we are seeing suggests that not enough is being done to keep bird flu out.
‘Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands you must take action now to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.’
She continued: ‘Implementing scrupulous biosecurity has never been more critical.
‘You must regularly clean and disinfect your footwear and clothes before entering enclosures, stop your birds mixing with any wild birds and only allow visitors that are strictly necessary.
‘It is your actions that will help keep your birds safe.’
If outbreaks are serious, many farmers are forced to cull their birds, with footage emerging of thousands of birds being dumped at a farm in Lincolnshire last month.
Horrific images taken at at the LJ Fairburn-owned farm in Alford last month shows lifeless birds being rounded up by JCB diggers and loaded into trucks to be taken away.
Workers can also be seen in blue hazmat suits loading the dead carcasses into industrial wheelbarrows in the county where the virus was first confirmed.
Nine nearby farms nearby had to be shut down following the outbreak at the premises which has supplied eggs to the likes of Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s.
Animal welfare charity Open Cages, which captured the images, is calling for the government to ban factory farming which it says spreads diseases ‘like wildfire.’
Open Cages CEO Connor Jackson, said: ‘These images should shock us more than they do.
‘It’s an absolutely horrendous sight.
‘The ease at which the farming industries cull animal lives shows how little they are valued, no matter how necessary it is to do.
‘We are failing to protect these animals because of our reliance on intensive farming: they should never have been infected in the first place.’
According to the charity, discharge and fluids from the birds can be seen in the machinery as the dust enters the open air.
They also claimed wheelbarrows of dead and possibly infected birds were left in the open air whilst the workers went on lunch break.
Mr Jackson added: ‘Bird flu was once a very rare disease among chickens, but today there are outbreaks occurring every year: this footage helps explain why.
‘When you take tens of thousands of chronically stressed animals and cram them into a filthy indoor facility you create an ideal environment for disease.
‘The more the animals suffer, the more stressed they become, and the less their immune systems can cope.
‘Deadly diseases like bird flu can then emerge easily or give foreign strains the perfect breeding ground.
‘On a factory farm a virus can spread like wildfire and provide an ideal chance to mutate, especially in highly intensified poultry capitals like Lincolnshire, East Anglia and Herefordshire.
‘It’s no surprise that nine farms were hit in the immediate area of where this footage was captured.
‘Clearly, biosecurity and mass killing are not solving this problem as it only addresses symptoms which are getting worse and worse.’
When an outbreak is confirmed UKHSA contacts people who may have also been exposed daily to see if they develop symptoms.
People are also offered anti-viral treatment after exposure to infected birds to stop the virus reproducing in their body.
Swabs are also carried out on people even if they do not have symptoms.
Wild bird species involved in the UK outbreak are mostly geese, ducks and swans. A number of birds of prey have also been confirmed to have died.
Dr Middlemiss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the virus is being spread by migratory birds flying back from the north of Russia and eastern Europe, an annual migratory season that goes on until March.
It has also emerged that at least two of the Queens’ swans have died from bird flu at Windsor, two days after an outbreak of the virus was confirmed in nearby Eton and Maidenhead — where Boris John and Princes William and Harry were pupils at exclusive Eton College.
Swan Support, which rescues sick and injured swans within the Thames Valley area, said two of the birds – a cygnet, a young swan, and a yearling- were found dead from the disease within the flock that lives on the River Thames at Windsor.
It is also possible that other swans have died along the river but their bodies have not yet been recovered.
Under an ancient statute, swans are owned by the reigning monarch.
The dead pair were found yesterday two days after the outbreak in nearby Eton and Maidenhead.
Swan Support said a regular checks had been made on the Windsor flock over the last six weeks with no sign of the virus but a number of swans were now displaying symptoms.
The centre said it was likely the virus had ‘spread from a recent local outbreak’ presumably referring to the Eton and Maidenhead outbreak.
The Queen’s official Swan Marker, who does an annual head count of the River Thames swans every year, has been informed.
Swan Support said: ‘We are sad to report that we have retrieved two dead swans from the Windsor flock – a cygnet and a yearling. Both died from Avian Flu, and whilst we can’t be certain of the source, it is likely it has spread from a recent local outbreak, as we have been checking on the Windsor birds for the past six weeks with no incidence of the virus.
‘We are now closely monitoring the flock several times a day, and in particular a number of swans that are displaying symptoms.
‘We are in regular contact with the Royal Swan Marker and keeping him informed of all developments.
‘We are working extremely hard to minimise the impact of this virus and stop the spread. Our rescuers are on call 24 hours a day and we will go out immediately as soon as we are informed of a dead bird.’
Swan Support has asked people in Berkshire to keep a look out for any bird seen swimming in circles and unable to hold its head up.
‘We have a designated rescuer in the Reading area who has been dealing with the outbreak there for the past month and now have a designated rescuer in the Windsor area. Both are confined to their individual areas to prevent any cross contamination.
‘It is hard and heartbreaking work but we are dedicated and determined.
‘We are asking for your help as it is vital to contain this outbreak and limit the devastating consequences we know this virus can have.
‘Please pay particular attention to any bird that is swimming in circles and unable to hold its head up. We will then monitor the bird and retrieve it following recommended protocol. We have systems in place to ensure that we do not bring the disease into our facility.’
On the continent, Europe is currently experiencing its ‘strongest avian flu epidemic ever’, according to Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health.
The Netherlands yesterday announced it is culling around 190,000 chickens on two neighbouring farms in the east of the country.
It is the second bird flu outbreak reported in the Netherlands this week, after a similar discovery in the northern province of Friesland led to the culling of around 225,000 chickens there.
And vets in Bulgaria started culling more than 39,000 chickens in the southern village of Krivo Pole on Sunday, while 80,000 Czech birds were killed last week.
Meanwhile, France culled between 600,000 and 650,000 chickens, ducks and other poultry in December alone.
Researchers told German news outlet DPA: ‘There is no end in sight – the countries affected range from Finland to the Faroe Islands to Ireland, from Russia to Portugal.’
The increase in cases started in the second week of October, coinciding with the autumn migration of waterbirds from Russia and eastern Europe to their wintering grounds in other parts of the continent.
Bird flu has been detected 675 times in wild birds and 534 in domestic animals across Europe since then.
Officials have also found the virus in foxes in Finland and the Netherlands, seals in Germany and Sweden an otters in Finland.
In Italy, data from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) show nearly four million birds died in the country because of bird flu between mid-October and December 26.
Outbreaks are less seasonal than they had been previously, with infections being seen over the summer contributing to the overwhelming numbers being seen currently.