WHO warns bird flu could be next global pandemic after reports disease has spread to mammals

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After reports of avian flu spreading from birds to mammals, the WHO has warned nations it could become the next global pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a warning for the world to prepare for a potential avian flu pandemic in humans. The warning comes after the bird flu strain H1N5 has been reported spreading from birds to mammals.

The strain has been identified in mammals such as otters, minks and foxes, which has led experts to believe the virus could soon be found in humans. In a digital briefing on Wednesday (February 8), the WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told nations to closely monitor the virus to spot infections in mammals early.

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The director said that while the risk of human infection is still low, we “cannot assume that will remain the case and we must prepare for any change in the status quo”. And while the virus has been detected in humans before, it has only been in isolated cases where people have been working with or come in contact with dead or infected birds.

The UK recently faced the biggest infection of avian flu recorded. As of February 9, special rules are in place for bird owners in order to control the spread of the virus.

As a virus infects a mammal, its genetic structure can mix with another virus in order to create a hybrid that could prove dangerous to humans. This happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Delta and Omicron strain combined to create the Deltacron strain, and is also believed to be behind the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

Scientists have warned about the risk of bird flu spreading to mammals and eventually humans for a long time. And as the virus is spreading to mammals, it could combine with a seasonal flu, causing the next pandemic.

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Avian flu have been spotted in mammals such as minks.Avian flu have been spotted in mammals such as minks.
Avian flu have been spotted in mammals such as minks. | AFP via Getty Images

After an outbreak of the virus infected minks in northwestern Spain lead to a cull and the isolation of farm workers, samples of the virus were analysed at a lab. Results published in the infection disease journal Eurosurveillance showed that the virus had gained multiple mutations never seen in the bird flu previously, whereas one had been spotted in the 2009 swine flu virus.

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