The spillover of bird flu to mammals must be ‘monitored closely,’ WHO officials warn: ‘We need to be ready to face outbreaks in humans’

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Cases of HN51 bird flu in mammals like those reported recently must be “monitored closely,” the head of the World Health Organization said Wednesday, as its experts called on public health officials to prepare for human outbreaks of the disease.

H5N1 avian flu has existed for a quarter century, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference. But new reports that the disease has crossed into small mammals like minks, otters, foxes, and sea lions are cause for alarm, given the species’ similarities with humans.

While the risk to people remains low, according to Ghebreyesus, public health officials must prepare “to face outbreaks in humans,” Dr. Sylvie Briand, director of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness and Emergency Preparedness at the WHO, said.

Since H5N1 was identified in 1996, only rarely have human cases occurred, and there has been no sustained transmission among humans, Ghebreyesus said. But he added: “We cannot assume that will remain the case.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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