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Death by Birds: Killer Bird Flu H5N8 to Affect Humans?

Nov 25, 2016 06:59 AM EST

Birds are once again facing another trial at the hands of bird flu. The H5N8 virus is now widespread across Europe and has been affecting wild bird and fowl everywhere. However, its evolution is a bad sign for a human version of the disease.

In particular, European farmers are now more worried as a new strain of the virus appears to be attacking their farms. 

H5N8 first appeared in China in 2014 before spreading it all across East Asia, to countries like Japan and Korea, and then Russia, and then to Europe. It appears the virus is also on its way to North America. 

The strain came from the H5N1 virus which started its menace in China in 1996. However, it eventually started to affect people in East Asia in 2004, then Europe and Africa in 2006. 

However, H5N1 has also been moving with migrating ducks like mallards, which are normally immune to such viruses. Unfortunately, their tendency to migrate to other areas allowed the H5N1 to "hybridise" with other kinds of flu.

Now, the H5N8 appears to have caused a massive die-off of wild birds in Russia and Mongolia. It may also have been spread to India, Middle East, and Europe. The disease is expected to spread further as lakes will freeze in the winter, causing ducks to find open water.

According to New Scientist, farms in Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany are now infected by the virus. Geese are now moved indoors and turkeys appear to be susceptible to the virus, with 9,000 turkeys being killed at an infected farm.

However, unlike the 2014 strain, the H5N8 appears to be killing wild birds such as swans, gulls, and tufted ducks. Since it picked up new genes from wild birds, the disease may be deadlier than before. Now institutes worldwide are checking if different species are more susceptible to the virus.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization also said the "risk" that humans may be affected by the flue cannot be ignored. Ab Osterhaus's team has found out that the 2014 H5N8 strains can affect ferrets or the mammals used to model human flu. 

In fact, it can be remembered that the supposedly harmless H7N7 outbreak in the Netherlands has infected hundreds.

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