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crisis in France, risks for people?

The virus of the “flu” or rather “avian plague” is spreading in farms in France. 16 million poultry were slaughtered, a record number. What to know about this disease? What are the risks of transmission to humans? Lighting with Pr Jeanne Brugère-Picoux, veterinarian and member of the National Academy of Medicine.

[Mise à jour le 3 mai 2022 à 14h25] Avian flu or rather “avian influenza” is a animal disease caused by A strains of the influenza virus. We’re talking about “epizootic“as it is a epidemic affecting animals. It is an infectious, viral, highly contagious disease affecting domestic and wild birds which can, depending on the strain, be transmitted to humans, without necessarily making them sick. Since August 2021, numerous outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) have been detected in wildlife or in farms in Europe. The health authorities of many Member States (the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, etc.) have notified outbreaks in poultry farms (turkeys and broiler chickens, laying hens). A first outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza was detected in France on November 26, 2021 in the North. At May 2 2022, the France account 1,364 outbreaks of avian influenza highly pathogenic (IAHP) in breeding, 46 cases in wildlife and 30 cases in backyards, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Since the start of the avian flu epizootic in November 2021, 16 million poultry were slaughtered in Francea record number of slaughters in the territory. Faced with the magnitude of the current crisis, three European experts traveled to France between April 5 and 7 to help the French authorities limit the spread of the avian influenza virus. What precautions adopt ? What risks for humans? How come this transmission ?

How many cases of bird flu in France?

At May 2 2022, the France account 1,364 outbreaks of avian influenza highly pathogenic (IAHP) in breeding, 46 cases in wildlife and 30 cases in backyards, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Since the start of the avian flu epizootic in November 2021, 16 million poultry have been slaughtered in France, a record number of slaughters on the territory.

“We have never had such a dramatic epizootic”

The entire metropolitan territory was placed on November 5 at “high” risk. “We have never had such a dramatic epizootic, the virus has become very pathogenic, immediately reacts Professor Jeanne Brugère-Picoux, veterinarian and member of the National Academy of Medicine who underlines however that “the epidemic is decelerating”. The main problem is to succeed in stop the progression of the virus and above all to avoid contamination of breeding farms for chickens, turkeys, etc. Their attack would result in the loss of many years of genetic research. We have to protect these grandparents.” On the other hand, no fear for the man in France “because there are not the same risk factors as in Asia where contamination has been observed (live poultry market likely to be infected, precarious conditions with significant cohabitation with uncontrolled poultry, persistence of the virus…)” continues the specialist. In France, the protection of poultry is essential in the face of the exceptional risk for humans. It is based on drastic biosecurity measures.

Map of France of areas linked to outbreaks of avian flu contamination – May 2, 2022 © Ministry of Agriculture

What is bird flu?

Avian “flu” or rather avian “plague” is a disease caused by avian influenza virus (A) highly pathogenic (HPAI). It’s a virus influenza virus family. We speak thus in a way inadequate “bird flu” whereas, in birds, it is a disease characterized by a sepsis associated with encephalitis, and not from a predominantly respiratory condition such as human flu. “The fowl plague virus was discovered in 1959 and the first case official that we had in France only happened in 2006″ emphasizes Jeanne Brugère-Picoux. This disease is particularly contagious and the virus can even be carried by the wind from one building to another. Many species of wild birds, especially those that live in wetlands and aquatic environments, harbor influenza viruses. Anseriformes (especially ducks, geese and swans) and charadriiformes (such as gulls, terns and waders) are the main natural reservoir of fowl plague virus. The infection can decimate an entire flock in less than 48 hours.

“If humans can be infected with the bird plague virus, they are not necessarily sick”

Is bird flu transmissible to humans?

bird flu transmission
Avian influenza virus transmission cycle © Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries

“In France, no human case linked to contamination by an HPAI virus has been observed to date” recalled the Academy of Medicine in a statement from December 2021. Worldwide, cases of HPAI H5N1 viruses have been identified in humans as well as deaths (455 deaths between 2003 and 2019, none in 2020 and 2021) but they remained very rare and have been observed in people who have had close contact with infected poultry or with objects contaminated by their droppings. Moreover, “if man can be infected with the avian plague virus, he is not necessarily sick”, emphasizes Jeanne Brugère-Picoux. Humans are not receptive to this virus at the level of the first cells of the respiratory system, it is necessary to reach the alveoli for there to be a serological reaction with this virus, that is to say at the level of the deep respiratory system. At this time, you will have a serological reaction but not necessarily a disease. If we breathe a little bit of the virus present in the feathers during plague, we can have a serological reaction without being sick.” Finally, it should be noted that not all avian influenza viruses are transmitted to humans. Of 144 strains of avian influenza A viruses, four have caused human infections: H5N1, H7N3, H7N7 and H9N2.

What are the risks of avian flu for humans?

“The avian plague virus is very pathogenic for animals, not for humans” continues our interlocutor. Remember (again) that in France, no human case linked to contamination by an HPAI virus has been observed to date. “There is nothing to worry about for humans in relation to the foci of avian plague recorded in France, reassures Jeanne Brugère-Picoux. The problem is mainly protect yourself so as not to contaminate other farms.” At last, “there has never been an adaptation of the avian influenza virus to the human species with human-to-human transmission. This disease was not classified as a zoonosis before the “avian flu” crisis caused by the H5N1 type HPAI virus of Asian origin discovered in Asia in 1996″.

What are the symptoms of bird flu?

In the rare cases of avian plague transmitted to humans, the disease was most often mild. Cases are asymptomatic or may report fever, fatigue, body aches, sore throat. The appearance of these symptoms in a person who has stayed in a risk zone or who has been in contact with contaminated birds must be the subject of emergency treatment. In more serious cases, fowl plague can be complicated by pneumonia with high mortality.

“There is no risk for humans to eat poultry or eggs.”

Avian plague virus spread by contact with infected birds or surfaces and objects contaminated with their droppings. To protect yourself and above all avoid contaminating other birds, you must wash your hands regularly, wear a mask and waterproof gloves (when handling dead animals or animal waste). If you travel to (or live in) an area with avian flu, many biosecurity measures are recommended:

  • avoid high risk areas. The legislation prohibits any transport of birds in this case and imposes strict biosecurity measures in poultry farms: footbaths, autoluves)
  • avoid direct contact with birds, especially hens, chickens, ducks and wild birds; people with “pet hens” must confine them to avoid any contact with wild birds under penalty of a fine;
  • avoid surfaces contaminated with bird droppings or secretions;
  • observe the rules of hand hygiene and food hygiene.

In addition, France has put in place a government plan to fight against avian flu with different steps to follow depending on the progress of a possible epidemic.

Is it safe to eat chicken and eggs?

“Yes, assures Jeanne Brugère-Picoux. There is no risk for humans to eat poultry or eggs, even a boiled or raw egg because the avian influenza virus is not dangerous for humans. Moreover, in the event of avian plague, the animals die quickly and the birds that may have been contaminated and their products are not marketed.

What are the treatments for bird flu? A vaccine ?

“We do not treat this disease in humans in France as in Europe elsewhere”, answers our interlocutor. No bird flu vaccine is authorized by the European Commission.

Thanks to Professor Jeanne Brugère-Picoux, veterinarian and member of the National Academy of Medicine.

Sources:

Avian plague, a disaster for farms, an exceptional risk for humans. Press release from the Academy of Medicine. December 22, 2021.

• Avian Flu, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, General Directorate of Forestry and Rural Affairs, General Directorate of Food, July 2006.

Avian flu, Institut Pasteur.

• Avian influenza, avian flu and the threat of a pandemic: a new issue in occupational health. INRS.2006.

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