Bird flu or H5N1 is a highly pathogenic and transmissible virus that is spread rapidly among bird populations and can also affect humans. Prevention is key since increasingly pathogenic mutations of the virus are evolving, which can lead to a more dangerous infection.
Several vaccines against different strains of avian H5N1 have been developed, but continual mutation of the virus means these are now ineffective. Some of these vaccines, however, can provide cross-protection against related flu strains but the only way to provide full protection is to develop a vaccine protective against a future pandemic strain. As there is currently no pandemic, no pandemic vaccine can be developed. Only pre-pandemic vaccines can be developed, tested and refined in the hope that they will help prepare for the next pandemic. Vaccine manufacturing companies have been encouraged to expand their capacity to enable quick production of large amounts of vaccine, should a new pandemic arise.
Public health measures
Measures that can be taken to protect public health include the detection and assessment of primary cases and the isolation and mass culling of infected or potentially infected birds. Other measures include routine and detailed surveillance and general public education regarding bird flu, its transmission and effects.
General precautions people can take on an individual level include the following:
- Hand washing, especially after going to the toilet and before handling food
- Covering the mouth while coughing or sneezing
- Disposing of tissues after use
- Avoiding public places if you are ill
- Ensuring a good level of general health and attending any vaccination appointments that have been recommended such as a seasonal flu jab.
- Washing the hands after any contact made with wild birds when feeding them, for example.
- Avoiding live animal markets or poultry farms if visiting an area where a bird flu outbreak has occurred.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc