WHO: Risk of avian flu in humans is low — but might not stay that way

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The World Health Organization says it is closely monitoring a strain of avian flu that spilled into mammal populations and could potentially lead to a new pandemic in humans.

The strain known as H5N1 has circulated among bird populations for decades, but it sparked an outbreak at a Spanish mink farm last fall. It also spilled into otters and sea lions, raising fears about a wider problem.

Human cases have occurred since the strain was detected in the late 1990s, though remain rare and typically result from close contact with an infected bird.

“For the moment, the WHO assesses the risk to humans as low,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a midweek press briefing. “But we cannot assume that will remain the case and we must prepare for any change in the status quo.”

Mr. Tedros said people should report dead or sick animals to authorities instead of handling them and called for greater surveillance of areas where animals and humans interact.

One of the main fears is that the flu strain could mutate within intermediary mammal species in a way that lets it jump to humans, posing the risk of another big pandemic.

Mr. Tedros said WHO is “continuing to engage with manufacturers to make sure that, if needed, supplies of vaccines and antivirals would be available for global use.”

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