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Bird flu is back: here's what you need to know

Ducks in a shed on a farm near Yorkshire, England where a strain of bird flu has been confirmed.
Ducks in a shed on a farm near Yorkshire, England where a strain of bird flu has been confirmed.
Anna Gowthorpe/Getty Images
  1. European health officials have been killing off thousands of birds to contain outbreaks of bird flu in several countries that may or may not be related.
  2. Health officials are concerned because any time there's an outbreak in animals, there's the possibility that the virus could infect humans, leading to a flu pandemic.
  3. But you don't need to worry just yet: it seems the outbreaks don't involve H5N1, the bird-flu strain that is most dangerous for humans.

What's going on in Europe?

On Sunday November 16, a case of bird flu was found on a duck-breeding farm near Yorkshire, England. Confirmation of the particular virus strain will come later this week, but officials so far said it's not the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain that can kill humans.

The news from England came just as Dutch officials announced that they had detected H5N8 bird flu at a poultry farm in the village of Hekendord. This strain is highly contagious and lethal to birds, but has never been found in humans.
Earlier this month, on November 4, the same H5N8 strain was found at a farm in northeastern Germany.

Now, scientists across Europe are collaborating to figure out how and whether these outbreaks are related.
The Dutch government has temporarily banned the transport of poultry and eggs and the European Commission is expected to introduce other containment measures.

What is bird flu and how deadly is it?

Like humans, birds — from chickens to ducks and other wild poultry— get sick with the flu sometimes. When they do, bird flu virus can spread easily among them by way of respiratory secretions and feces, reaching epidemic proportions very quickly.

The reason experts worry so much about bird flu, however, is because it's an easily transmissible respiratory virus and some strains have managed to infect humans — with deadly outcomes.

Right now, bird flu has only rarely made people sick, and mostly involved very close contact with infected birds, and not human to human spread.

But there's the concern, whenever the virus surfaces, that it could makes the leap into humans and mutate to become more easily passed among people, leading to a pandemic. As the Guardian notes, "Pandemics have occurred every 20 to 30 years, but it has been almost 40 years since the last one happened."

Of all the bird flu strains, H5N1 is the one public-health experts worry about the most. It's believed to be the most dangerous form of bird flu, and it has caused serious outbreaks mostly among animals in Asia and the Middle East, as well as some 650 human cases since 2003.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most human cases of H5N1 virus have turned up in people who had direct contact with infected animals in Asia and 60 percent of those infected later died.

Should I be worried about the outbreaks in Europe?

Probably not. The outbreaks in Europe appear to involve strains of the virus that haven't been deadly in humans. The H5N8 strain in Germany has never infected humans, and health officials confirmed that the bird flu in England — while a form of H5 — is not the deadly H5N1 strain.

As well, officials have been working to contain spread, killing off birds that may have been infected, including some 6,000 ducks in England and, in the Netherlands, some 150,000 chickens.

Still, flu outbreaks can take health officials by surprise and there's still a lot we're learning about bird flu and how it spreads. What's more, the WHO has long warned that a pandemic could start off with just the scenario we're seeing now: infected birds on a farm.