A growing trend for Britons to keep chickens or ducks in their back gardens could be the reason for a massive surge in bird flu, an expert warned yesterday.
Professor Ian Brown said outbreaks have risen nearly five-fold and a ‘good percentage’ of cases were in gardens.
He said these types of bird keepers do not have to register with any authority because they have small numbers.
This winter’s outbreak of bird flu is the largest and longest ever in Britain, but scientists do not yet fully understand why it has been worse than in previous years.
A total of 121 outbreaks involving the H5 variation of bird flu have been reported so far this year. The previous record involving H5N1 was 26 in 2021.
Scientists from eight leading UK laboratories have now been given £1.5 million to develop new ways to tackle the recent outbreaks.
A trend for Britons to keeps chickens and ducks in their gardens could be behind a surge in bird flu according to experts. A total of 121 outbreaks involving the H5 variation of bird flu have been reported so far this year
This winter’s outbreak of bird flu is the largest and longest ever in Britain, but scientists do not yet fully understand why it has been worse than in previous years. Dead turkeys are loaded onto a JCB at Redgrave Park Farm in Suffolk following an outbreak of bird flu there in 2007
This new taskforce will examine what strategies are needed ‘to prevent future spill-overs of influenza with pandemic potential into humans’.
The experts will also look to establish why the current virus strain has led to a longer outbreak, as well as why some birds, including ducks, are resistant to some strains.
In January duck keeper Alan Gosling, 79, of Devon became the first Briton to contract a potentially fatal strain of bird flu, but later recovered.
H5N1 — which kills up to half of the people it infects — was first identified in southern China in 1996 in domestic waterfowl.
Between 2003 and March 2022 there have been 864 cases and 456 deaths from H5N1 human infection in 18 countries, according to the World Health Organization.
However, subsequent human-to-human transmission of avian influenza is rare and the risk of a major outbreak in people is deemed to be even lower.
Experts believe the flu does not generally pose a high risk, with no human-to-human transmission since it emerged 20 years ago.
Professor Brown, head of virology at the Animal and Plant Health Agency, told The Observer cases were ‘in big commercial farms all the way down to somebody keeping two chickens in their back yard’.
Alan Gosling, 79, (pictured) became the first Briton to contract a potentially fatal strain of bird flu, but later recovered
He described it as a ‘massive shift in terms of the food security risk, public health risk’.
He added: ‘Over the past ten years, we’ve had several bird flu events in the UK, but their frequency has been increasing.
‘Instead of coming every three or four years, we seem to be getting an event every year, and… they’re on a bigger scale.
‘The more humans are in contact with birds in an uncontrolled way, the greater is the theoretical risk that people can get infected.’
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 the UK Health Security Agency.
The launch of the new government-backed research project, dubbed FluMap, comes amid the discovery on UK beaches of a growing numbers of dead seabirds — from gannets and guillemots to razorbills and skuas.
Experts fear that because of this the risk of the disease spreading to and from poultry is increasing.
One of the main things scientists behind FluMap will be tasked with finding out is how the flu spreads from wild birds to farmed chickens and ducks.
The virus can survive for about eight weeks at 39.2°F (4°C), so faecal matter dropped on pasture near a poultry building could be infectious for weeks.
A virus that kills up to 50% of humans… but transmission is rare: Everything you need to know about bird flu
What is bird flu?
Bird flu, or avian flu, is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among bird species but can, on rare occasions, jump to human beings.
Like human influenza there are many strains of bird flu:
The current outbreak in birds in the UK is H5N1, the strain that the infected Briton has.
Where has it been spotted in the UK?
A case of bird flu has been spotted in a human in the South West of England.
Officials did not disclose the exact location of the case, but UKHSA said all close personal contacts of the individual have been traced and there is ‘no evidence’ of the infection having spread to anyone else.
The UK is facing a particularly bad year for cases in birds, with around one million having to be culled in Lincolnshire — where the virus was first spotted on December 11.
Exclusion sites were put around Mablethorpe, Alford and South Elkington in the region.
There have also been outbreaks North Yorkshire and Pocklington in East Yorkshire.
How deadly is the virus?
Fatality rates for bird flu in humans have been estimated to be as high as 50 per cent.
But because transmission to humans is so rare, fewer than 500 bird flu deaths have been reported to the World Health Organization since 1997.
Paul Wigley, professor of avian infection and immunity at the University of Liverpool, said: ‘The advice given by APHA and UKHSA over contact with infected birds is sensible and should be followed.
‘The risk of wider infection in the general public remains low.’
Is it transmissible from birds to humans?
Cases of bird-to-human transmission are rare and usually do not spread on human-to-human.
Bird flu is spread by close contact with an infected bird or the body of one.
This can include:
- touching infected birds
- touching droppings or bedding
- killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said: ‘Transfer of avian flu to people is rare as it requires direct contact between an infected, usually dead, bird and the individual concerned.
‘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.’
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of bird flue usually take three to five days to appear with the most common being:
- a very high temperature
- or feeling hot or shivery
- aching muscles
- a cough or shortness of breath