Fears of avian flu strain ‘jumping’ to humans amid massive outbreak

Israeli medics fear a dangerous bird flu virus could infect humans amid a major outbreak in the country

Israel is struggling to contain a large-scale bird flu outbreak as the disease has conquered new ground in recent months. Now, Israeli health officials are warning that the virus might infect humans – without even mutating.

“The widespread nature of the avian flu is very concerning, especially given that it is infecting chickens and not just wild birds,” the head of Israel’s National Council for Community Health, professor Amnon Lahad, told the Times of Israel on Wednesday. The professor warned that the virus had already made “the move from wildlife to stock animals,” and said he was only hoping it would not take the next step “to humans.”

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FILE PHOTO: Cranes gather during the migration season on a foggy morning at Hula Nature Reserve in Israel. November 17, 2020. © Reuters / Ronen Zvulun
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The grim warning came a day before the disease spread to another Israeli farm, infecting some 5,500 birds, prompting the Agriculture Ministry to place the facility on lockdown and suspend its egg sales.

The outbreak started around two months ago, when the first signs of the disease were noted at various farms in Israel’s north.

It also hit the Hula Nature Reserve, where it killed thousands of cranes and other wild birds in what the minister of environmental protection, Tamar Zandberg, described as “one of the worst blows to wildlife in Israel’s history.”

Identified as the highly pathogenic H5N1 type of the virus, capable of infecting both birds and humans and having a fatality rate of over 50%, the avian flu has already led to 600,000 domestic fowl in Israel dying this month from either the disease or being culled.

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FILE PHOTO: Veterinarians vaccinate a goose against bird flu in the village of Kaikovo, some 20 km (12 miles) south of Minsk, March 29, 2010. Poultry near ponds are vaccinated every spring before migrant birds arrive, a veterinary official said. Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko
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“We’re managing a complex and evolving situation that requires many responses,” Agriculture Minister Oded Forer said on Thursday. “I have instructed our professional teams to continue taking action by all available means.” The ministry also said that it was concerned about the virus potentially infecting humans, adding that its veterinarians had been working “according to emergency procedures.”

According to Lahad, the virus could jump to humans following a mutation, but it can also possibly do that even without one. It could be “transmitted through contact with sick birds,” he said, adding that it might occur through “the same method we know from Covid, namely droplets passing into the respiratory system.”

No cases of human infection from ​​H5N1 have been reported by Israel to date.

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