The recent spread of bird flu to mammals has led the World Health Organization to warn that while the risk to humans currently remains low, it cannot be assumed that this will remain the case.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that cases of bird flu in mink, otters, foxes and sea lions reported in recent weeks needed to be watched closely. “At this time, the WHO assesses the risk to humans as low,” he said. Tedros pointed to the fact that since the emergence of H5N1 in 1996, there has only been “rare and unsustained” transmission to and between humans.
“But we cannot assume this will remain the case and we must be prepared for any change in the status quo,” he said.
In October, the H5N1 virus was detected in a mink farm in the Spanish region of Galicia. While investigations revealed that mink-to-mink transmission may have occurred on the farm, all farm personnel tested negative for the virus.
Worldwide, four people were infected with the bird flu (H5N1) virus last year, one of whom died, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in emailed comments.
Bird flu poses an ongoing threat to human health due to its potential to cause a future pandemic and therefore strict surveillance of the disease remains essential, he said.
“Animal surveillance is important to detect any changes in the virus that have implications for human health,” the spokesperson said.
On Wednesday, Tedros called on countries to step up their surveillance of areas where humans and animals interact.
The WHO is also working to ensure that if the worst happens, supplies of vaccines and antivirals are available. Tedros said the WHO continues to engage with manufacturers on this issue.