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Media Release: ‘Bird flu’, infections to humans are uncommon and rare

14 September 2017

Avian influenza, ‘Bird flu’, infections to humans are uncommon and rare

The Western Cape Government Health is aware of the recent outbreak of Avian influenza, also known as ‘bird flu’ on various farms in the Western Cape.

We would like to inform the public that the risk of transmission of this particular strain of ‘bird flu’, H5N8, to humans is very low.

Human infections with ‘bird flu’ are uncommon and usually occur in individuals who have close contact with birds, either live or dead, that are infected with avian influenza viruses. Human infections have in the past occurred in persons who visit or work in live poultry markets or commercial farms where an avian influenza strain is circulating. Avian influenza viruses do not usually spread from person-to-person.

There is close collaboration between the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases around surveillance for ‘bird flu’ in the animal population and amongst occupationally exposed humans. Cases where possible transmission is suspected from affected birds/poultry or ostriches to humans will be investigated. Persons who are in contact with live or dead birds, especially those in the poultry industry are advised to wear personal protective equipment including gloves, disposable aprons/clothing and masks capable of preventing inhalation of aerosolised virus particles.

Infected birds shed avian influenza virus in their mucous and feces droppings). Human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when enough virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled. Once it enters the human host, the virus adapts to its new environment and thus infects the human body. No symptomatic cases of human infection with avian influenza viruses have been documented in South Africa, even following the outbreaks of Avian Influenza in Oudtshoorn in 2004, 2006, 2011-13.

Human infection may be asymptomatic or present with mild, flu-like symptoms including runny nose, body pains, fever and red eyes. Severe infections may present with severe pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and multi-organ failure leading to death. Both low and high pathogenic avian influenza viruses can be associated with severe disease and death following human infections. There are currently no commercially available rapid tests to diagnose ‘bird flu’ and distinguish the virus from seasonal human influenza, this can only be confirmed through specialized laboratory testing at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

To prevent the spread of ‘bird flu’ to humans, people should not touch dead birds, especially where large numbers of dead birds are found. Where a suspected or confirmed outbreak of ‘bird flu’ has occurred, only limited numbers of persons should be exposed, and all persons should use appropriate personal protective equipment. Hand washing with disinfectant soap after contact with birds is essential.

 -End-

Media Enquiries: 

Mark van der Heever
Deputy Director: Communications
Western Cape Government Health
Mobile: 078 589 4156
Email: Mark.vanderheever@westerncape.gov.za
Website: www.westerncape.gov.za