he UK is facing its biggest-ever bird-flu outbreak after it has been reported the disease has spread to mammals, such as foxes and otters.
Bird-flu has now been found in five seal carcasses on a beach in Cornwall and Cornwall Wildlife Trust is urging people to stay away from all dead animals which wash up on beaches, including seals, dolphins, porpoises, whales, and sea birds.
A statement from the group said: “The general public are advised against approaching and interacting with seals in the UK, even when the animals are in distress.”
The latest figures show the disease has killed around 208 million birds in the world, with at least 200 recorded cases among mammals.
Worldwide, bird flu has been found to affect a number of other mammals, including grizzly bears in America and mink in Spain, as well as seals and dolphins.
Now, public-health bosses are warning of this mutation in mammals possibly jumping to humans. However, currently, the risk to the public is very low.
The Animal & Plant Health Agency’s (APHA) director of scientific services, Professor Ian Brown, says that the UK’s national avian flu taskforce is ramping up its surveillance of cases in mammals, including a genome analysis of the virus.
He added that they will be keeping a close eye on its spread in global populations of wild birds.
Almost 15 million domestic birds, including poultry, have died from the disease, while more than 193 million have been culled.
Cases have been found in Cheshire, Durham, and Cornwall in England, Powys in Wales, as well as Shetland, the Inner Hebrides, and Fife in Scotland.
What is bird flu and how is it transmitted?
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said wild birds migrating to the UK from mainland Europe during the winter months can carry the disease and this can lead to cases in poultry and other captive birds.
Birds can be infected with the avian influenza virus through contact with infected birds or waste products. Wild birds including waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese) can carry and transmit the virus without showing evidence of disease, according to Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at RSPB Scotland.
How do you spot bird flu?
There are two types of avian influenza, with highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) being the more serious type. It is often fatal in birds.
Some of the clinical signs of HPAI in birds include sudden and rapid increase in the number of birds found dead, several birds affected in the same shed or air space, a swollen head, closed and excessively watery eyes, head and body tremoring, drooping of the wings and/or dragging of legs, twisting of the head and neck, and swelling and blue discolouration of comb and wattles.
Other signs include haemorrhages on shanks of the legs and under the skin of the neck, loss of appetite or marked decrease in feed consumption, sudden increase or decrease in water consumption, respiratory distress, sneezing, noticeable increase in body temperature, discoloured or loose watery droppings, and cessation or marked reduction in egg production.
What can the Government do?
The RSPB is calling for UK governments “to develop a response plan urgently”.
The charity says: “We want to see co-ordinated surveillance and testing of wild and domestic birds, carcasses to be safely disposed of, and vulnerable bird populations protected. We also want measures put in place to stop the unnecessary disturbance of wild birds affected by the virus.
“In the longer term, we want much higher importance being given to prioritising and funding seabird conservation. This would help make our seabird populations more resilient to these diseases and the other challenges they face.”
What is the risk to the public?
The risk to human health from the virus is very low and food standards bodies advise that avian influenzas pose a very low food-safety risk for UK consumers, according to Defra.
People are advised not to touch or pick up any dead or sick birds that they find and instead report them to the relevant helpline.
Defra said there is no impact on the consumption of properly cooked poultry products, including eggs.
Is it still okay to feed birds in your garden?
The RSPB said everyone should take care to maintain good hygiene when feeding garden birds, and also recommended “regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, and washing your hands”.
UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said people who keep chickens and want to feed wild birds need to make sure everything is kept “scrupulously clean” and “absolutely separate” to avoid infecting their own flocks.
What should you do if you see a sick or injured bird?
The RSPB said if people find any dead waterfowl, any gulls or birds of prey, or five or more of any other species in one place, they should report them to the Defra helpline on 03459 335577 or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840.
The RSPB also advises that people who live in bird-flu areas should keep their dogs on a lead, as the virus can be passed to pets.