South Korea Winter Olympics Preparing for ‘Bird Flu’

Avian influenza H5N6 bird flu reported near Seoul, South Korea

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South Korean health authorities are on alert to contain the spread of avian influenza ahead of the PyeongChang Olympics on February 9, 2018.

The South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed a new case of suspected avian influenza (AI), known commonly as bird flu, near Seoul on January 15, 2018, reported the Yonhap News Agency.

If confirmed, this report would be the second virulent avian influenza case in the area surrounding Seoul, which is about a 3-hour drive from PyeongChang.

The health ministry had earlier placed a three-week transport ban on poultry in the greater Naju area, as well as ordered disinfection measures and ongoing monitoring.

Additionally, the health ministry has ordered local governments and poultry farms to prevent migratory birds from flying in and to take disinfection measures.

Since the first outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N6 strain in November 2017, South Korea has confirmed 11 bird flu cases and culled 1.46 million ducks and chickens to contain the spread, government officials said.

During 2017, South Korea was forced to cull more than 30 million birds to contain the worst outbreak of bird flu in the country's history.

"A new strain generated by virus reassortment is presumed to have entered the nation (Korea) since October via winter migratory birds," the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency (APQA) said in a release.

The genomic analysis into the cases showed a new type of H5N6 strain, which arose from the reassortment between a high pathogenic H5N8 that spread in Europe in late 2016 and a low pathogenic H3N6 virus found in European wild birds, the APQA agency said.

But, the good news is that no human cases have been detected in South Korea.

Cases of human infections from the H5N6 virus have previously been reported elsewhere, including China and Hong Kong.

In the USA, a different strain of bird flu was detected on a Tennessee farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this represented the first confirmed case of highly pathogenic H7 avian influenza in commercial poultry in the United States during 2017.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza refers to viruses that result in high death rates for birds, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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Infectious disease experts say there are numerous differences between ‘bird flu and ‘seasonal flu’.

Human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when enough virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled. This can happen when the virus is in the air and a person breathes it in, or when a person touches something that has the virus on it then touches their mouth, eyes or nose. Infected birds shed avian influenza virus in their saliva, mucous and feces, says the WHO.

A study in the journal PLoS Pathogens revealed that the bird flu virus becomes impaired at 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Since this is the temperature of the human nose, it is less likely that bird-flu can spread from person to person.

Currently, the best way to prevent infection with avian influenza A virus is to avoid sources of exposure whenever possible reports the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, some infections have been identified where direct contact was not known to have occurred.

People who work with poultry or who respond to avian influenza outbreaks are advised to follow recommended biosecurity and infection control practices; these include the use of appropriate personal protective equipment and careful attention to hand hygiene.

Additionally, the CDC currently recommends treatment with a neuraminidase inhibitor for human infection with avian influenza A viruses. The CDC suggests that most viruses are susceptible to antivirals, such as oseltamivir, peramivir, and zanamivir.

These antivirals can be purchased at most pharmacies, and prices can be viewed at the CDC Price List and discounts can be found here.

As a new emerging infection, there is not a specific vaccine for H5N6.

The United States federal government maintains a vaccine stockpile, including vaccines against Asian H5N1 and Asian H7N9 viruses. The stockpiled vaccines could be used if similar viruses were to begin transmitting easily from person to person.  

Since influenza viruses change, the CDC continues to make vaccine candidates as needed, said the CDC.