Hongkongers should avoid touching wild birds amid possible mutation in deadly H5 avian flu virus, expert says

Hongkongers should avoid contact with wild birds amid signs the deadly H5 avian flu virus is mutating and may become more infectious to mammals, a leading expert has said.

Ivan Hung Fan-ngai, chair professor in infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong, warned residents on Saturday after recent outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu virus were reported among US dairy cows, which did not have past records of infection.

“We saw that H5N1 is showing signs of genetic mutation that could allow it to infect mammals more easily,” Hung said in a seminar organised by the Hong Kong News-Expo.

“We don’t rule out that the mutation could lead to an effective human-to-human transmission.”

He warned its virulence and transmissibility could be more serious than Covid-19 if such mutation occurred.

US authorities had identified infected cows in 52 dairy cattle herds across nine states in the recent outbreaks as of Wednesday, according to the country’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two dairy farm workers, believed to have caught the virus from cows, were reported to be infected last month and on Wednesday. The pair were likely to be the world’s first reported cases of humans catching the virus from cows.

A study published in a top US medical journal on Friday also noted the H5N1 virus could be found in the milk produced by infected cows, and animals consuming the unpasteurised liquid could be infected.

Australia on Thursday also reported its first ever human case of H5N1, involving a child who caught the virus overseas.

Hung urged the public to avoid contact with wild birds.

“If you see a dead bird, do not touch it. It’s better to tell the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which has a specific team to handle,” he said.

He also advised against feeding pigeons, which are always in big flocks, as some might have been infected with bird flu viruses already. Hung warned that droplets of secretions from infected birds are highly infectious.

Hong Kong will also ban the feeding of pigeons from August 1, after lawmakers passed an amendment bill for the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance on Wednesday.

Addressing the recent rise of whooping cough cases globally, Hung said genetic mutation was a possible reason to blame.

He said bacteria behind the highly infectious disease might have already undergone genetic changes before the Covid-19 pandemic.

While much fewer cases were reported during the pandemic while social-distancing measures were in place, the genetic mutated bacteria could have contributed to a rebound in cases as people increasingly came into contact with others as Covid-19 restrictions were eased.

He said whooping cough vaccines might need to be revised for better prevention.

The city’s health authorities on Friday urged doctors to stay vigilant against an upsurge of whooping cough cases locally and around the world.

Hong Kong so far has recorded 28 such cases this year, a significant increase from the 15 cases in 2023.


Business Asia
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