New bird flu strain detected in humans

Seven workers at a Russian poultry farm were found to be infected with the bird flu strain. Picture: Olaf Kraak/ANP/AFP
The first cases of humans infected with the H5N8 avian flu strain have been reported, with an expert warning it could be the “tip of the iceberg”.

The World Health Organisation has been alerted after the first cases of humans being infected with the H5N8 bird flu strain were detected in Russia.

The country’s health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor revealed the virus was detected in seven workers at a poultry farm in southern Russia after an outbreak was recorded among the birds in December.

Head of the consumer health organisation, Anna Popova, said each of the workers was believed to have caught the virus from birds at the farm, with no sign of transmission between humans.

Several days ago, we became absolutely certain of our results, she said in a televised statement.

The workers did not suffer any serious health issues and have all recovered from the virus.

Information about the world’s first case of transmission of the avian flu (H5N8) to humans has already been sent to the World Health Organisation, Ms Popova said.

The H5N8 strain is highly-lethal to wild birds and poultry but this is the first time it has been reported in humans.

The H5N1 strain is the most common variant of bird flu and is known to transmit to humans and other animals.

The first human infections of bird flu were detected in 1997 following a major outbreak of the virus among poultry in Hong Kong.

The H5N1 variant can cause severe disease in humans, with a morality rate of about 60 per cent, according to WHO.

The vast majority of bird flu infections in humans are linked to people who have had close contact with infected live or dead birds or environments contaminated with the virus.

Transmission between humans is “unusual”, the organisation said.

Ms Popova praised “the important scientific discovery”, saying “time will tell” if the virus can further mutate.

The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not still acquired an ability to transmit from human to human gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion, she said.

The WHO has confirmed it was notified about the Russian infections and it was working with authorities to “gather more information and assess the public health impact of this event”.

If confirmed, this would be the first time H5N8 infects people, it said.

Head of research at France’s National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment, Gwenael Vourc’h, said that influenza viruses were known to evolve “quite quickly” and there might have been other cases besides those reported in Russia.

This is probably the tip of the iceberg, she told AFP.

Russia’s Vektor State Virology and Biotechnology Center has already indicated it is ready to begin developing test kits that would help detect potential cases of H5N8 in humans and to begin work on a vaccine.

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