As Avian Influenza Spreads, WHO Calls for Stronger Surveillance


Since avian influenza is continuing to spread in birds across Europe, WHO calls for stronger surveillance efforts in order to better prevent potential infection in humans.

With highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza A (H5N8) continuing to spread via birds across Europe, the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging the public to keep careful watch on this strain and has also called for stronger surveillance efforts in order to better prevent potential infection in humans.

In a press release, Caroline Brown, MD, programme manager of Influenza and Other Respiratory Pathogens at WHO/Europe said, “No human cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza A (H5N8) have been reported so far in European countries, but this does not mean this cannot happen, as past experience tells us. Countries reporting outbreaks in birds need to remain vigilant as avian influenza viruses can transmit from animals to humans.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Type A avian influenza viruses are known to infect wild aquatic birds around the world, who carry the infection in their intestines and respiratory tract. These viruses are very contagious and they spread easily among birds. In chickens, ducks, and turkeys, infection can result in death.

According to WHO, there are at least 24 countries in the WHO European Region that have experienced H5N8 outbreaks in domestic poultry and wild birds since June of last year. Of these 24 countries, three have reported outbreaks within the past two weeks. WHO notes that countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia have also reported outbreaks.

This outbreak in Europe has once again coincided with the autumn migration of wild birds. Back in 2014, the virus was first detected in birds in Asia and in June 2016, the virus infected wild aquatic birds in the southern part of the Russian Federation. According to WHO, “By September 2016 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations had issued an alert for countries along the West Eurasian and Afro-Eurasian migration routes to watch for the virus.”

In a past interview with Contagion®, Stephen Redd, MD (RADM, USPHS), director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR) at the CDC discussed whether or not the public should be concerned by avian influenza. He said, “This has turned out not to be a problem up to now with people. We still want to protect people [and] we want to make sure that the workers who are culling infected flocks are not exposed to the virus. Up to now, we’ve been fortunate in that these viruses don’t seem to have a very high risk for infecting humans.”

To date, there have not been any human cases of H5N8 influenza; however, WHO warns that despite the fact that human infection is low, the possibility is still there, especially because other subtypes of influenza were capable of infecting humans in the past. Cases of humans being infected with different subtypes of avian influenza occurred when the individuals reportedly caught the infection through contact with poultry that was infected as well as from an infected environment, such as poultry markets, according to the press release. WHO warns that those individuals who handle diseased birds or poultry, the dead bodies of diseased birds or poultry, or who work in contaminated environments are at increased risk of transmission of avian influenza.

In the press release on the latest outbreak, WHO included prevention advice for those individuals who are living in countries with the H5N8 virus is prevalent. Officials warn that individuals should not touch any birds or animals that appear sick or have died. Instead, they should report these cases to the proper authorities. Furthermore, they advise that whenever handling any birds or dead animals, individuals should wear gloves. If gloves are unavailable, use an “inverted plastic bag” as a means to collect any bird carcasses. Afterwards, individuals should vigorously wash their hands with soap and water. Lastly, they implore individuals to partake in good food safety and hygiene practices and make sure that these practices are in accordance with WHO’s manual on the keys to safer food.

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