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

Bird flu is raging particularly intensely in Germany this year. Isolated outbreaks were already reported in the summer – either in breeding facilities or, more recently, in animal parks and zoos. The virus can be dangerous not only for animals, but also for people. The most important questions and answers.

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What is bird flu?

Bird flu is also known as fowl flu or bird flu (AI) and according to the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (Laves) it refers to a highly contagious viral disease of birds, especially chickens and turkeys. Two variants of influenza viruses are distinguished: less pathogenic, low pathogenic and highly pathogenic, which can lead to more severe disease courses and high animal losses. This manifests itself clinically as the so-called bird flu.

Viruses carry certain proteins on their surface, which are denoted by the abbreviations H (for hemagglutinin) and N (for neuraminidase), and each occurs 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 H5 and N1 proteins on its surface.

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What cases of bird flu have occurred so far?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), since 2003, there have been several hundred illnesses caused by highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) viruses worldwide, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). According to the RKI, more than 1,500 people have contracted influenza A(H7N9), a bird flu virus that was new at the time, since 2013. Several hundred people died in this connection. From 2022, a new, particularly pathogenic variant of H5N1 causes the mass death of wild birds.

How dangerous is bird flu to humans?

Bird flu is most commonly transmitted by wild fowl, especially waterfowl such as ducks, which often spread the virus over long distances. The virus can be transmitted through direct contact between animals, Laves said. Transmission by air, people, vehicles, manure, feed or shipping crates is also possible.

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

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Symptoms: How do you recognize bird flu?

While low-pathogenic avian influenza viruses (LPAIV) of subtypes H5 and H7 cause almost no or only mild symptoms in animals, avian influenza is a highly acute febrile viral disease, according to Laves. 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 rapidly and usually ends fatally for affected animals.

If people have been infected with the pathogen, according to the RKI, in severe cases, flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and a sore throat appear. More than half also suffer from diarrhea during the infection, stomach pain and vomiting may also occur less often. In addition, infection with the dangerous type A(H5N1) 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,” the RKI reports. Such cases are not yet known in Germany.

What can I do if I keep birds myself?

According to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, bird flu is highly contagious, especially to domestic poultry such as chickens, and has severe general symptoms. To prevent chicken disease, hobby owners should take certain precautions to prevent the disease, Laves says. Contact with wild birds and feeding them food and kitchen waste or eggshells should be avoided.

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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 hall should be secured against unauthorized entry. In addition, protective clothing should be worn and hands and shoes should be disinfected before contact with animals, Laves advises. In addition, no other poultry farms should be visited and pest rodents should be checked regularly.

What are the German authorities doing against bird flu?

If infection is suspected in animals, it must be reported immediately to the appropriate local veterinary office, Laves says. If the suspicion is confirmed after taking a sample, measures must be taken to prevent further spread of the infection in animals. This includes the establishment of a three-kilometer protection zone and a ten-kilometer surveillance zone, as well as the removal of affected farms – this includes killing and “harmless disposal of animals”.

Is it possible to vaccinate against bird flu?

The Aflunov vaccine against bird flu has been approved in the EU since 2010. According to the European Medicines Agency (EMA), it is used in adults to protect against diseases caused by the H5N1 strain of the influenza A virus. It is a dead vaccine that is given only in exceptional 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,” the Center for Travel Medicine and Vaccination Hamburg states on its website.

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