What is the EU’s latest guidance on the risk of bird flu? 

Following a transmission incident from cattle to a dairy worker in the US, the European Commission and EU health and food safety agencies say that the risk of infection in humans is still low, although it’s still important to be vigilant. 

The news on April 1st of a confirmed case of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (H5N1 bird flu) in a person in the US, attributed to exposure to infected dairy cattle, raised global concerns.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted this as the second case of the pathogen in the US, following an instance where a person in Colorado contracted the disease due to exposure to infected poultry.

Given that many human infectious diseases originate from animal pathogens, the incident in the US prompted inquiries into the potential for ‘zoonotic spillover’ of the pathogen and its adaptation to humans.

Earlier this week, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a new report on the potential drivers and steps for an avian influenza pandemic.

The latest EFSA-ECDC overview also indicates a decrease in the overall number of virus detections in birds compared to previous years.

A spokesperson for the European Commission reassured that the risk of transmission of avian influenza viruses from animals to the general public is low, particularly due to the high level of surveillance and biosecurity measures in place in the EU.

However, they noted that the global circulation of avian influenza viruses and their presence in countries with lower biosecurity standards than the EU pose a potential risk for virus adaptation to mammals, including humans. 

Various mammal species, such as foxes, minks, and pets like cats, are susceptible to the circulating strain of avian flu, as evidenced by cases in Finland and Poland in 2023, all linked to contact with infected birds.

If avian influenza viruses develop the ability for human-to-human transmission, the report from EFSA and ECDC highlights the potential for large-scale transmission, given humans’ limited immunity to H5 viruses.

EFSA and ECDC advocate for more surveillance of humans and animals, rapid diagnostics access, closer collaboration between animal and human health authorities, and the implementation of preventive measures like vaccination.

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