Symptoms, transmission, situation in Germany – the most important information

Bird flu is raging particularly hard in Germany this year. Sporadic outbreaks were already being reported in the summer – whether in breeding farms or, more recently, in animal parks and zoos. The virus can be dangerous not only for animals, but also for humans. The most important questions and answers.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is also known as avian influenza (AI) and is a highly contagious viral disease of birds, especially chickens and turkeys Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (Laves). A distinction is made between two variants of influenza viruses: the less disease-causing, low pathogenic ones and the highly pathogenic ones, which can lead to more severe disease courses and high losses of animal stocks. This shows up clinically as so-called avian influenza.

the Viruses carry specific proteins on their surface, which are denoted by the abbreviation H (for haemagglutinin) and N (for neuraminidase) and which each occur in different subtypes (H1 to H16 and N1 to N9). A variant called H5N1 is currently circulating, which means that the pathogen carries a combination of the proteins H5 and N1 on its surface.

What cases of bird flu have there been so far?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since 2003 there have been several hundred diseases worldwide due to highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) viruses the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). According to the RKI, more than 1,500 people have been infected with influenza A(H7N9), a bird flu virus that was new at the time, since 2013. Several hundred people died in this connection. Since 2022, the new, particularly pathogenic variant H5N1 has been causing a mass death among wild birds.

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How dangerous is bird flu for humans?

Bird flu is most commonly transmitted by wildfowl, particularly waterfowl such as ducks, which often spread the virus over long distances. The virus can be transmitted through direct animal-to-animal contact, Laves said. Transmission via the air, people, vehicles, manure, feed or transport crates is also possible.

However, bird flu can be transmitted not only from animal to animal, but also to humans. This usually happens in close contact with infected birds, according to the RKI. “With zoonotic infections, there is always a risk that the viruses – which are unknown to the human immune system – will adapt to humans,” it continues. According to Laves, however, the consumption of chicken or turkey meat, eggs and other poultry products as a possible source of infection is harmless. Overall, according to the RKI, the risk of infection is very low.

Symptoms: How do you recognize bird flu?

While low-pathogenic avian influenza viruses (LPAIV) of the subtypes H5 and H7 cause hardly any or only mild symptoms in animals, avian influenza is a highly acute, febrile viral disease, according to Laves. The infected animals show symptoms such as high fever, loss of appetite, weakness, lethargy and shortness of breath. After a short incubation period, the disease progresses quickly and usually ends fatally for the affected animals.

According to the RKI, if people have been infected with the pathogen, this is manifested in severe cases by flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and sore throat. More than half also suffer from diarrhea when infected, and stomach pain and vomiting can also occur less frequently. In addition, infection with the dangerous A(H5N1) type can often result in pneumonia, which can lead to lung failure and death. “About half of all patients with influenza A(H5N1) infection died of their disease,” according to the RKI. Such cases are not yet known in Germany.

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What can I do if I keep birds myself?

Avian flu is highly contagious, especially for domestic poultry such as chickens, and is associated with severe general symptoms Friedrich Loeffler Institute. In order to prevent a chicken disease, hobby owners should take some protective measures to prevent the disease, says Laves. Contact with wild birds and feeding them food and kitchen waste or eggshells should be avoided.

Feed, bedding and other items that poultry come into contact with should be stored in such a way that they are inaccessible to wild birds and the house is secured against unauthorized entry. In addition, protective clothing should be worn and hands and shoes should be disinfected before contact with the animals, Laves recommends. In addition, no other poultry stocks should be visited and harmful rodents should be controlled regularly.

What are the German authorities doing against bird flu?

If there is a suspicion of an infection in the animals, this must be reported immediately to the responsible local veterinary office, says Laves. If the suspicion is confirmed after taking a sample, measures must be taken to prevent the animal disease from spreading further. This includes setting up a three-kilometre protection zone and a ten-kilometre surveillance zone as well as clearing the affected farms – this also includes killing and “disposing of the animals harmlessly”.

Can you get vaccinated against bird flu?

The Aflunov vaccine against bird flu has been approved in the EU since 2010. It is used in adults to protect against illnesses caused by the H5N1 strain of the influenza A virus, according to the European Medicines Agency (EMA). It is a dead vaccine that is only administered in rare cases. “In particular, travelers to China and Southeast Asia who are exposed to an increased risk of infection, for example through professional contact with live poultry or who plan to visit bird markets, can be vaccinated,” says das Center for Travel Medicine and Vaccination Hamburg on its website.

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