Two dolphins have died from bird flu for the first time in the UK, and were both infected with the highly contagious H5N1 virus, the government has announced.
The ocean mammals were found in separate spots, on beaches in Devon and in Pembrokeshire, last month.
A harbour porpoise was also found to have died from the variant of avian influenza in East Yorkshire.
Highly pathogenic, H5N1 has spread around the globe over the past 18 months, causing the deaths of millions of birds.
Bird flu has been seen in dolphins elsewhere worldwide but never before in the species British waters.
Two dolphins have died from bird flu for the first time in the UK, and were both infected with the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, the government has announced (file image)
It has, however, previously been seen in native species including foxes, otters and grey seals.
The bird flu outbreak, which began early last year, is the biggest in history, and has affected more than 200 million domestic birds globally, as well as wild birds.
As well as birds, the virus has infected a range of mammals, including 22 in the UK.
This year, there have been six mammals confirmed to have had bird flu – two red foxes in Powys and Perth and Kinross, an otter in Shropshire along with the two dolphins and one porpoise.
The animals are thought to have eaten dead birds which had been infected with the virus.
Worldwide, the virus has also spilled into mammals like mink, racoons and bears.
The infections have sparked fears that the virus may soon acquire worrying new mutations that would allow it to cause a human pandemic.
Scientists have not so far been able to confirm that the virus can spread between mammals in the wild.
Most wildlife who contract avian flu are believed to have caught it from scavenging infected birds.
However, the mass deaths of seals and sea lions from the virus have been a major cause for concern, with the World Organisation for Animal Health looking into the findings.
H5N1 is not yet capable of spreading between people, like Covid and other flu viruses.
Vaccination being carried out on birds (file photo). The WHO also recommended strengthening surveillance in settings where humans and animals interact
Tens of thousands of birds suddenly die in coastal Peru and throughout the Americas. Municipal workers collect dead pelicans on Santa Maria beach in Lima, Peru, (Picture dated November 30, 2022)
How does someone catch bird flu
The virus can jump from bird to human through multiple means.
First, a person could be infected after touching a contaminated surface and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
In many cases, this includes a person playing with a chicken, or touching places it sits or sleeps in such as its cage or bed.
A bird can also shed infected particles which travel through the air. A person who inhales these particles may be infected.
Can eating a chicken wing cause bird flu?
Experts say that properly cooked meat does not pose a risk of transmitting the virus.
Even if the bird was infected before it died, any lingering virus would be killed at the high temperatures used to cook chicken.
When chicken is undercooked, it still likely reaches temperatures enough to kill the virus.
If a person were to eat a raw chicken wing for any reason, transmission would be possible.
While it is poorly adapted for humans, the virus is deadly, in that it kills about half of those it infects.
In late February, a Cambodian schoolgirl became 2023’s first bird flu victim after she and her father became infected.
Eleven-year-old Bean Narong died on February 22 after catching Type A HN51 in the impoverished Rolaing Village in the southeastern province of Prey Veng.
The little girl and her father were among fewer than 1,000 people ever to have been diagnosed with H5N1.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said at the time that the situation was ‘worrying’ but stressed there was currently no evidence bird flu had made the genetic leap necessary to spread between humans.
The organisation called for vigilance, but tried to calm fears that large-scale human outbreaks could be looming.
‘The recent spillover to mammals needs to be monitored closely,’ the UN health agency’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, stressing that ‘for the moment, WHO assesses the risk to humans as low’.
Ghebreyesus noted that since the virus first emerged in 1996, ‘we have only seen rare and non-sustained transmission of H5N1 to and between humans’.
But, he cautioned: ‘We cannot assume that will remain the case, and we must prepare for any change in the status quo.’
He said people were advised not to touch dead or sick wild animals and to instead report them to local and national authorities, who were monitoring the situation.
The WHO also recommended strengthening surveillance in settings where humans and animals interact.
‘WHO is also continuing to engage with manufacturers to make sure that, if needed, supplies of vaccines and antivirals would be available for global use,’ Ghebreyesus said.