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WHO raises concerns over avian influenza in Europe

The World Health Organization is calling for heightened vigilance and strengthened surveillance efforts to prevent and detect potential human cases of avian influenza as it continues to spread in birds across Europe.

“No human cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N8) have been reported so far in European countries, but this does not mean this cannot happen, as past experience tells us,” said Dr Caroline Brown, Programme Manager of Influenza and Other Respiratory Pathogens at WHO/Europe. “Countries reporting outbreaks in birds need to remain vigilant as avian influenza viruses can transmit from animals to humans.”

Since June 2016, at least 24 countries in the WHO European Region have reported outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N8) virus in wild birds and domestic poultry. At least three of these countries have reported outbreaks in the last two weeks. Outbreaks have also been reported in countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Assessment of the risk of human transmission

The risk of transmission from birds to humans is relatively low. Although no human cases of HPAI A(H5N8) have ever been reported, it is important to remain vigilant.

Most human cases caused by other avian influenza viruses occurred after exposure through contact with infected poultry or contaminated environments, including live poultry markets. In areas with reported outbreaks of avian influenza in birds, people at potential risk are those in direct contact with/handling diseased birds and poultry, their carcasses and/or their environment.

Advice for the public in areas experiencing outbreaks in birds

  • Avoid contact with any birds (poultry or wild birds) or other animals that are sick or found dead and report them to the relevant authorities.
  • Do not touch birds or carcasses with bare hands. If you must handle a carcass, wear gloves or use an inverted plastic bag to collect the bird, and then wash your hands properly with soap or a suitable disinfectant.
  • Follow good food safety and food hygiene practices in line with WHO’s 5 keys to safer food, such as cooking food thoroughly at sufficiently high temperatures.

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