Recent outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza in Northern Europe, Russia, and the Middle East are worrying neighboring countries and have led to the culling of tens of thousands of chicken, turkeys, and ducks.
Following a recent outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N6 bird flu in South Korea, officials in northern European countries and Russia have reported cases of H5N8 bird flu, sparking fears of an epidemic spreading across Europe.
While the H5N8 bird flu virus has been circulating in Europe over the last two years, the recent outbreak began in early November when food safety officials detected the virus at a poultry farm in Hungary, prompting the culling of 9,000 turkeys. Soon after, Austrian health authorities reported the discovery of H5N8 in five dead wild ducks near the country’s border with Germany and Switzerland and instructed farmers to protect their birds by bringing them indoors. Since then, the virus has been found circulating in commercial and migratory birds in several countries. In response, officials in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France have ordered poultry farmers to take preventive measures to avoid the transmission and spread of the disease in their flocks, including sheltering bird flocks indoors and monitoring bird health. However, despite efforts to protect poultry farms from the risk of exposure through infected wild migratory birds, the particularly severe form of bird flu spread to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, and Finland. In addition, health officials in Israel and Iran have also reported outbreaks of H5N8.
After enforcing stringent precautionary measures in France to protect the country’s foie gras farms, agriculture officials have reported the detection of H5N8 in 20 wild ducks in the country, prompting worries about the virus’ spread despite the fact that surveillance efforts have found no new cases in French commercial farms. The country and its poultry producers are still reeling from a string of outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 earlier this year that impacted French chicken and duck farmers.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), while the current outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N8 have caused death and disease in birds, there is a low likelihood of humans becoming infected with the virus. H5N8 viruses belong to clade 184.108.40.206 of the A/goose/Guangdong/1/1996 lineage, which was detected in 2014 and was found in parts of Europe, Russia, Asia, and North America in that same year. While past cases of H5N6 in humans occurred in China, such infections of bird flu in humans are rare; surveillance of countries that have been affected by the current H5N8 outbreak have yet to report any human cases. In a recent report, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) emphasizes there have been no human infections with H5N8 and the risk of zoonotic transmission from birds to humans is low. Still, the spread of the avian virus poses a health risk to humans and the possibility of a pandemic.
The ECDC recommends that anyone that has been exposed to H5N8 be monitored for 10 days following exposure for any signs of infection, such as conjunctivitis, fever, or any influenza-like symptoms. Those most at risk include farmers, veterinarians, and other animal workers who come in direct contact with diseased birds or their carcasses. During the current outbreak, WHO officials note that while risk of exposure and illness to the public at large is very low, they remind people to take the following precautions to avoid acquiring the bird flu: