As the world is reeling back to normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia-the largest country in the world- has reported the first case of the H5N8 bird flu virus passed to humans from birds. Russian authorities have also alerted the matter to the World Health Organization (WHO). According to Russia head of consumer health watchdog, Anna Popova, “Information about the world’s first case of transmission of the avian flu (H5N8) to humans has already been sent to the World Health Organization.” 

It should be noted that 7 workers at a poultry plant in South Russia were infected with the new H5N8 strain after the outbreak spread in birds in December 2020. According to Popova, scientists at Russia’s Vektor laboratory, have isolated the genetic material from the strain from the seven infected workers. These workers did not suffer any serious health consequences. 

In a televised interview, Popova remarked that the detection of the new virus strain is “the most important scientific discovery” and added that “time will tell” if the virus will further see mutations.  

Popova said, “The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not still acquired an ability to transmit from human to human gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion.” 

What is the new H5N8 strain that’s found in Russia? 

According to the medical experts, the H58 strain is a subcategory of the Influenza A virus that causes cold-flu-like symptoms in wild birds along with poultry. Although it poses a severe risk to the bird population, researches so far suggest that it is of low-risk to the human population. The virus had also made its way to crows in India’s Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Until the recent reports in Russia, the new strain was not known to have any effect on humans.  

Where else has the H5N8 strain been reported?  

The H5N8 outbreaks have so far been reported in Russia, China, Middle-East, North Africa, India. Several states in India reported the avian flu in January this year. Around 800 chickens were found dead in Maharashtra in January this year after which the state issued an alert across poultry farms and farmers. 

In Himachal Pradesh’s Pong Dom sanctuary, over 1700 birds were found dead with the cause of death identified as the new avian flu. In Madhya Pradesh, the virus took the lives of 50 crows in the city Indore and 100 crows in Mandsaur. Indian capital Delhi also reported similar cases with ducks, crows, and chickens dying in the past month.  

What is the history of bird flu infecting humans?  

The first registered bird flu transmission to humans was from Hong Kong in the year 1997. The infection was back then caused by a different strain called H5N1. 6 out of the 18 overall infected people lost their lives. After that, the poultry birds in the region were slaughtered and no more cases were registered.  

Since then, the virus has re-emerged, taking the form of new mutations and has infected several thousand birds in various parts of the world. According to a WHO report, more than a million birds were infected with the virus with 360 people dying across 12 countries as of 2012.  

How does the bird flu outbreak spread?

The virus and all its mutations are naturally present in wild aquatic birds like ducks, geese, etc. When these birds carry forward with their migration, they end up shedding viruses in the feces, nasal secretions, or droppings from their mouths or eyes while they are flying. And that’s how the virus is first spread to poultry birds, and then other animals such as pigs, cats and even dogs. 

Is chicken or egg okay to eat given the condition? 

According to the public healthcare organization WHO, the virus does not transmit from birds to humans from adequately cooked poultry produce. This is due to the fact that the virus and all its mutations are heat-sensitive. The virus dies at normal cooking temperature, making the poultry produce safe to consume.