With COVID-19 having gripped the world over the last three years causing a global pandemic, organisations and employers are now on the lookout for the next disease which has the potential to disrupt their operations and harm the health of their employees.
One disease on our radar is bird flu H5N1 – could it trigger and power the next pandemic? With incidences of the H5N1 strain of bird flu increasing in animals, it is a disease that needs close monitoring in case it develops the ability to spread easily from human to human impacting large numbers of the global population.
What is bird flu?Bird flu H5N1, a severe type of influenza which affects birds, has been a global health issue since having been found to infect humans during poultry outbreaks in Hong Kong in 1997, and since then human cases have been reported in more than 60 countries.
We are now seeing a surge of cases in wild birds and poultry globally with human cases having been reported in the United Kingdom, United States, Spain and Ecuador for the first time.
Since 2003, human cases have been reported in at least 21 countries: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Canada, China, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, United States, United Kingdom and Vietnam. There have been over 868 cases, more than half of which were fatal.
The virus is now thought to be entrenched in birds in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The spread of bird fluThis is certainly not a new disease, however, we, at International SOS, are carefully monitoring the rate of increase and spread of H5N1 in birds
It appears that close contact with infected poultry has been the source of most human infections. The virus is contained in the secretions and excretions of infected birds, especially the faeces. Humans appear to become infected by touching, then ingesting or inhaling infected faeces.
Not all cases can be traced back to infected poultry, it is believed that some cases come from infected ducks. Human-to-human transmission is rare.
How to spot bird fluSymptoms usually develop 2-5 days after exposure to infection, however, in some cases it can take longer. The disease usually presents with flu-like symptoms but then a severe lower respiratory tract infection, and even pneumonia can follow. In severe cases, the illness can progress to organ failure and death. The antiviral medication Tamiflu may be effective if taken in the early stages of infection.
Diagnosis of H5N1 is by specialised lab tests of samples from the respiratory tract and blood.
How to avoid infectionPrevention, like with any disease, is key. International SOS recommends the following advice for the prevention of infection:
Avoid contact with birds and other animals, and their environment.
- Do not go to live animal markets, poultry farms or pig farms.
- Do not handle any birds, even if they appear well. Prevent children from doing so.
- Avoid touching any surfaces that may be contaminated by bird droppings.
- Do not swim in any body of water that is used by birds.
Always maintain high levels of personal hygiene.
- Frequent hand washing is very important.
- Wash hands before and after food preparation and before eating.
- Thoroughly cook all poultry and poultry products, including eggs.
Consider having an annual influenza vaccination. Although the vaccination will not protect against bird flu, it reduces risk of a "co-infection" with human influenza.
As bird flu is one of many diseases with the potential to cause a pandemic, monitoring and preparation are critical for organisations so they can prepare their workforce for all eventualities. No organisation wants to be taken by surprise again much like they were with COVID-19.