ealth officials have drawn up modelling for a possible bird flu pandemic after the death of an 11-year-old girl from the disease sparked international alarm.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has created a group of 26 experts to model a potential outbreak of H5N1 if the virus were to evolve to spread between humans.
The death of the unnamed girl in Cambodia was the first known human infection with the H5N1 strain in the country since 2014, the health minister, Mam Bunheng, said in a statement on Thursday. The girl lived near a conservation area and health officials have taken samples from a dead bird there.
H5N1 has spread among poultry and wild birds for 25 years, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Scientists fear that the virus could potentially evolve to spread between humans and become the catalyst for the next pandemic.
However the UKHSA said there is “no evidence so far that the virus is getting better at infecting humans or other mammals”.
“While the evidence suggests that the virus does not pass easily to people, there is an increased chance of people coming into contact with the virus due to the high levels in birds.”
Since its emergence in 1996, there has only been rare and non-sustained transmission of the strain to and between humans. Only 131 cases of avian flu have been recorded in mammals since October 2021.
The UKHSA group includes Imperial College’s Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling was key to the first national Covid-19 lockdown, as well as UKHSA chief medical officer Dr Susan Hopkins.
Policies being examined by the group include the introduction of lateral flow tests for the disease.
Officials are also assessing whether a blood test could be developed to detect antibodies against the virus.
“To facilitate preparedness, planning and improvements to surveillance, scenarios of early human transmission are being developed,” the UKHSA said.
Humans who have been infected with bird flu in the past have usually worked in poultry farms or been in contact with infected birds.
Since early last year, bird flu has ravaged farms around the world, leading to the deaths of more than 200 million birds because of the disease or mass culls, the World Organisation for Animal Health said recently.
Dr Meera Chand, incident director for avian influenza at UKHSA, said: “The latest evidence suggests that the avian influenza viruses we’re seeing circulating in birds do not currently spread easily to people.
“However, viruses constantly evolve, and we remain vigilant for any evidence of changing risk to the population, as well as working with partners to address gaps in the scientific evidence.”
The UKHSA has urged the public to avoid contact with sick or wild dead birds in public areas such as parks and waterways and to wash hands after feeding wild birds.