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 marine mammals were found in several places last month, on beaches in Devon and Pembrokeshire.
In East Yorkshire, a harbor porpoise was also found to have died from the variant of avian influenza.
The highly pathogenic H5N1 has spread around the world over the past 18 months, causing the deaths of millions of birds.
Avian flu has been seen in dolphins elsewhere in the world, but never before in UK waters.
Two dolphins have died from avian flu for the first time in the UK and were both infected with the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, the government has announced (file image)
However, it has previously been observed in native species including foxes, otters and gray seals.
The bird flu outbreak, which began early last year, is the largest in recorded history and has affected more than 200 million domestic and wild birds worldwide.
In addition to birds, the virus has infected a range of mammals, including 22 in the UK.
This year, six mammals have been 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 a porpoise.
The animals are believed to have eaten dead birds infected with the virus.
Worldwide, the virus has also reached mammals such as minks, raccoons and bears.
The infections have fueled fears that the virus may soon develop troubling new mutations that could cause a human pandemic.
Scientists have so far been unable to confirm that the virus can spread between mammals in the wild.
Most wildlife that contract bird flu is believed to have contracted it by capturing infected birds.
However, the mass deaths of seals and sea lions from the virus have been a major cause for concern, with the World Organization for Animal Health investigating the findings.
H5N1 cannot yet spread between humans like Covid and other flu viruses.
Vaccination is carried out on birds (file photo). The WHO also recommended strengthening surveillance in environments where humans and animals interact
Tens of thousands of birds are dying suddenly in the coastal regions of Peru and across the Americas. Municipal workers collect dead pelicans on the beach of Santa Maria in Lima, Peru (photo from November 30, 2022)
How does someone get bird flu
The virus can jump from bird to human in several ways.
First, a person can become 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 in which it sits or sleeps, such as its cage or bed.
A bird can also excrete infected particles that travel through the air. A person who inhales these particles can become infected.
Can eating a chicken wing cause bird flu?
Experts say well-cooked meat poses no risk of transmitting the virus.
Even if the bird was infected before it died, any virus left behind would be killed in the high temperatures used to cook chicken.
If chicken is undercooked, it probably still reaches enough temperatures to kill the virus.
If someone were to eat a raw chicken wing for any reason, transmission would be possible.
Although poorly adapted to humans, the virus is deadly, killing about half of those it infects.
In late February, a Cambodian schoolgirl became the first bird flu victim of 2023 after she and her father became infected.
Eleven-year-old Bean Narong died on February 22 after capturing Type A HN51 in impoverished Rolaing Village in southeastern Prey Veng province.
The little girl and her father were among fewer than 1,000 people to ever be diagnosed with H5N1.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said at the time that the situation was “concerning,” but stressed that there is currently no evidence that avian flu has 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 loom.
“The recent spillover to mammals needs to be closely monitored,” UN Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, emphasizing that “The WHO currently assesses the risk to humans as low.”
Ghebreyesus noted that since the virus first emerged in 1996, “we have seen only rare and non-sustained transmission of H5N1 to and between humans.”
But, he warned, “We can’t expect this to continue, and we must prepare for any change in the status quo.”
He said people were advised not to touch dead or sick wildlife and instead report it to local and state authorities, who are monitoring the situation.
The WHO also recommended strengthening surveillance in environments where humans and animals interact.
“WHO also continues to work with manufacturers to ensure that vaccines and antivirals are available for global use when needed,” Ghebreyesus said.