The first human case of a deadly strain of bird flu in the UK is heartbroken after officials culled the 20 ducks who had become his live-in companions.
Britain’s ‘patient zero’ Alan Gosling, a 79-year-old grandfather living in Devon caught the virus after looking after 160 Muscovy ducks at his home in Buckfastleigh. He befriended them over a number of years, his family say.
The former railway worker is the first ever human case of H5N1 — which kills up to half of the people it infects — recorded in the UK. Fewer than 1,000 people have ever been diagnosed with the strain globally since it emerged in the late 1990s.
Officials said Mr Gosling, a mechanical foreman who retired in the 1990s, is in good health and currently in self-isolation. All of his beloved ducks, including 20 that lived inside his home, were culled after they tested positive for the virus last week.
Mr Gosling did not need hospital treatment, and officials said there was no evidence he has spread it to anyone else.
Describing the past two weeks as a ‘nightmare’, Mr Gosling said yesterday that he feels ‘fine’ physically – but has been devastated by the fate of his flock. ‘I’d been with them for more than 20 years so it’s a huge loss,’ he said. ‘They were my family – they were my life.’
Insisting the cull was ‘way over the top’, he added: ‘People don’t realise they are intelligent, but also so sweet. They used to sit on my slippers to warm them up for me before I put them on. The house was never empty and I was never alone. Now it’s like a morgue.’
He continued: ‘Apparently I have got the virus… as far as I can tell I have no ailments whatsoever. They’ve been taking samples for me so they can work out what to do to stop others from getting it.’
Mr Gosling’s daughter-in-law Ellesha, 26, and husband Richard, 47, earlier said they have been unable to see their relative since the outbreak. She claimed the past couple of weeks have ‘been hell for this family’, revealing that he begged Hazmat suit-wearing officials not to cull his ducks because they were like his ‘closest friends’.
His close personal contacts, including anyone who visited his home, have been traced and there is ‘no evidence’ of the infection having spread to anyone else, the UKHSA said.
The current H5N1 outbreak is the largest bird flu crisis ever recorded in Britain, with up to 2million poultry thought to have been culled as part of efforts to control the virus.
Britain’s outbreak is part of the spiralling crisis currently ravaging Europe and has been going on for weeks, which sparked fears of a turkey shortage in the run-up to Christmas.
Bird to human transmission of bird flu — also known as avian flu — is rare and has only occurred a small number of times in the UK. However, the public is being urged not to touch sick or dead birds.
Subsequent human-to-human transmission of avian influenza is even rarer, meaning the risk of a major outbreak in people is deemed to be even lower.
But the development comes with fears about infectious pathogens at an all-time high in the UK after two years of the Covid pandemic, reignited by the latest surge in Omicron infections.
The first human case of a deadly strain of bird flu in the UK has been revealed as 79-year-old former railworker Alan Gosling living in Buckfastleigh, Devon
Mr Gosling, who is the first ever human case of H5N1, caught the virus after looking after 160 Muscovy ducks at his home in Buckfastleigh. Pictured: A female Muscovy duck
A map of bird flu outbreaks in the UK recorded by the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). Map shows: Britain’s 3km protection zones (blue circles) and 3km captive bird zones (dark pink circles) where all visitors, poultry and egg movements must be recorded by farmers and birds must be housed or isolated; 10km surveillance zones (black circles) where all visitors, poultry and egg movements must be recorded by farmers; and 10km restricted zones (light pink circles)
A warning sign for avian influenza in Barkby, Leicestershire, bird owners and poultry farmers are being urged to enforce strict quarantine measures to halt the spread of the virus with the public also advised to stay way from sick or dead animals
A virus that kills up to 50% of humans… but transmission is rare: Everything you need to know about bird flu
What is bird flu?
Bird flu, or avian flu, is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among bird species but can, on rare occasions, jump to human beings.
Like human influenza there are many strains of bird flu:
The current outbreak in birds in the UK is H5N1, the strain that the infected Briton has.
Where has it been spotted in the UK?
A case of bird flu has been spotted in a human in the South West of England.
Officials did not disclose the exact location of the case, but UKHSA said all close personal contacts of the individual have been traced and there is ‘no evidence’ of the infection having spread to anyone else.
The UK is facing a particularly bad year for cases in birds, with around one million having to be culled in Lincolnshire — where the virus was first spotted on December 11.
Exclusion sites were put around Mablethorpe, Alford and South Elkington in the region.
There have also been outbreaks North Yorkshire and Pocklington in East Yorkshire.
How deadly is the virus?
Fatality rates for bird flu in humans have been estimated to be as high as 50 per cent.
But because transmission to humans is so rare, fewer than 500 bird flu deaths have been reported to the World Health Organization since 1997.
Paul Wigley, professor of avian infection and immunity at the University of Liverpool, said: ‘The advice given by APHA and UKHSA over contact with infected birds is sensible and should be followed.
‘The risk of wider infection in the general public remains low.’
Is it transmissible from birds to humans?
Cases of bird-to-human transmission are rare and usually do not spread on human-to-human.
Bird flu is spread by close contact with an infected bird or the body of one.
This can include:
- touching infected birds
- touching droppings or bedding
- killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said: ‘Transfer of avian flu to people is rare as it requires direct contact between an infected, usually dead, bird and the individual concerned.
‘It is a risk for the handlers who are charged with the disposal of carcasses after an outbreak but the virus does not spread generally and poses little threat.
‘It does not behave like the seasonal flu we are used to.
‘Despite the current heightened concern around viruses there is no risk to chicken meat or eggs and no need for public alarm.’
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of bird flue usually take three to five days to appear with the most common being:
- a very high temperature
- or feeling hot or shivery
- aching muscles
- a cough or shortness of breath
Ellesha said the family are ‘in shock’ at the news and are finding it hard to process.
The mother-of-one, from Cranbrook, Exeter, said: ‘The past couple of weeks have been hell for this family. He saw all of his ducks killed, and they were like his closest friends.
‘He is often on the phone to us, asking what the doctors have said — but we can’t answer questions we don’t know the answers to.’
Ellesha said Mr Gosling first began to notice several ducks of his huge flock becoming sick a few days before Christmas.
The Muscovy ducks originally lived in a public area near Mr Gosling’s home.
He started to feed them, eventually becoming friendly enough over a number of years that he was able to bring them to his property to live with him.
After DEFRA and APHA got wind, more than 100 ducks living outside of Mr Gosling’s property were culled in a bid to prevent the spread, shortly after Christmas.
Despite pleading against it, the 20 ducks which lived inside his home with him were culled on New Years Day by a team in Hazmat suits.
Ellesha says several swabs have been taken for Mr Gosling although all of the results had not yet been confirmed to the family.
They were told a test for the general flu virus had come back positive, and one of the tests for avian flu virus had also come back positive.
The strain one of the tests showed positive for was the H5N1 strain, but three of the avian flu tests had come back negative, leaving the family uncertain.
While the outside of the property has been partially cleaned, the family say the interior of the property remains contaminated until he is confirmed to be no longer infectious.
The family are keen to see the inside of the property cleared of contamination as they fear his condition could worsen, but say this has not yet taken place despite their pleas.
They say they have been told the cleaning of the inside of the house will have to be paid for by Mr Gosling— a further blow for the retiree.
They are now in limbo, unable to support him or visit him as he mourns the loss of his pets, while worries over his health remain.
The case was first detected after the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, identified an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in the person’s flock of birds.
As a precaution, UKHSA swabbed the person involved and detected low levels of flu. Further lab analysis showed the virus was the ‘H5’ type found in birds but have UKHSA said it has not been possible to confirm that this is the same H5N1 infection currently circulating in birds Britain.
The birds the person had contact with have now been culled, health authorities confirmed.
UKHSA chief scientific officer Professor Isabel Oliver, said: ‘While the risk of avian flu to the general public is very low, we know that some strains do have the potential to spread to humans and that’s why we have robust systems in place to detect these early and take action.
‘Currently there is no evidence that this strain detected in the UK can spread from person to person, but we know that viruses evolve all the time and we continue to monitor the situation closely.’
The World Health Organization has been notified about the development.
The last recorded case of bird flu in the UK was in 2006 but this was for the H7 version of the virus. In total there have been less than five cases of bird flu in humans recorded in Britain, according to UKHSA.
Reacting to the news Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said there was no cause for public alarm about the human transmission and that poultry products, such as eggs, remained safe.
‘Transfer of avian flu to people is rare as it requires direct contact between an infected, usually dead, bird and the individual concerned,’ he said.
‘It is a risk for the handlers who are charged with the disposal of carcasses after an outbreak but the virus does not spread generally and poses little threat. It does not behave like the seasonal flu we are used to.
‘Despite the current heightened concern around viruses there is no risk to chicken meat or eggs and no need for public alarm.’
Professor Mike Tildesley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the University of Warwick, added: ‘This is clearly going to be big news but the key thing is that human infections with H5N1 are really rare and they almost always occur as a result of direct, long term contact with poultry.
‘There has never been any evidence of sustained human to human transmission of H5N1 so at present I wouldn’t consider this to be a significant public health risk.’
According to World Health Organization data, as of October 2021 there have been 863 cases of H5N1 in humans reported globally since 2003, of which 456, 52 per cent, were fatal.
Officials said Mr Gosling, a mechanical foreman who retired in the 1990s, is in good health and currently in self-isolation. All of his beloved ducks, including 20 that lived inside his home, were culled after they tested positive for the virus last week. Pictured: Two of Mr Gosling’s ducks
Despite pleading against it, the 20 ducks which lived inside his home with him were culled on New Years Day by a team in Hazmat suits. Above: Another of Mr Gosling’s ducks
A river runs through the town centre of Buckfastleigh, Devon, where Mr Gosling lives. This river is home in many ducks
Professor Paul Wigley, an expert in avian infection and immunity at the University of Liverpool also said concern of human transmission should be low, especially considering the infected individual appears to have caught a H5 strain.
‘Avian influenza such as the H5 serotype is largely adapted to infect birds and so is very unlikely to be transmitted from person-to-person.
‘The risk of wider infection in the general public remains low.’
The case comes after a large number of outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds across the UK, with alerts having been issued to bird owners for months.
The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said: ‘We are seeing a growing number of cases in birds on both commercial farms and in backyard flocks across the country. Implementing scrupulous biosecurity measures will help keep your birds safe.’
Only one confirmed infection H5N1 in humans was reported in 2021. This case occurred in India and was fatal.
The UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss has warned poultry owners to implement ‘scrupulous biosecurity’ to keep their animals safe from the virus.
Dr Middlemiss said there are currently 40 infected premises in the UK – including 33 in England, three in Wales, two in Scotland, and two in Northern Ireland.
Bird owners have been told to keep all animals housed inside and away from wild birds who may have migrated from abroad and brought the flu with them.
Farmers must cleanse and disinfect clothing, equipment and vehicles before and after contact with their birds.
And they are instructed to change their footwear if possible and clean them thoroughly if not when entering poultry sheds.
Bird housing must be disinfected thoroughly and all feed and water must be kept inaccessible to wild birds.
If there are any concerns or signs of disease, farmers are told to seek prompt advice from their vet.
Dr Middlemiss said: ‘We have taken swift action to limit the spread of the disease including introducing housing measures.
‘However, we are seeing a growing number of bird flu cases both on commercial farms and in backyard birds right across the country.
‘Many poultry keepers have excellent biosecurity standards but the number of cases we are seeing suggests that not enough is being done to keep bird flu out.
‘Whether you keep just a few birds or thousands you must take action now to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.’
Footage has emerged of thousands of birds being culled in Lincolnshire in December and there are fears the ongoing bird flu outbreak will mean many more animals will need to be put down
Veterinarians tip dead chickens into a tractor at Ivy House Farm in Alford, Lincolnshire, on December 22, where thousands were culled after an outbreak of bird flu
Animal welfare charity Open Cages claimed wheelbarrows of dead and possibly infected birds were left in the open air whilst the workers went on lunch break
Dead turkeys are loaded onto a JCB at Redgrave Park Farm, in Redgrave, Suffolk following an outbreak of bird flu at the turkey farm in 2007
More than 160 cases of ‘flurona’ were detected in England BEFORE Omicron took place… but experts insist there is no reason to panic
More than 160 cases of ‘flurona’ have already been detected in England, MailOnline can reveal — but experts say true toll could be in the region of 1,000 and insist it the fears are ‘overhyped’.
Data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows of the 8.6million people in England who tested positive for Covid by the end of November, 169 also had influenza — 0.002 per cent.
Health chiefs said the real figure of those who have had both viruses at once will be higher, and around three in 10 people who require an intensive oxygen treatment in hospital have a secondary infection on top of Covid.
Dual infections of influenza and coronavirus have been reported this week in Europe and the US, including in children and a pregnant woman.
But doctors monitoring the cases have so far reported mild symptoms, and one top expert said concerns over ‘flurona’ are ‘overhyped’.
Flu has yet to make a resurgence in the UK after cases fell to their lowest level in 130 years during the pandemic, as restrictions brought in to reduce the spread of Covid also prevented flu cases from reaching usual levels.
Experts warned this lack of immunity could lead to 60,000 flu deaths this winter, up from the usual annual death toll of 10,000 to 25,000.
But data from the Office for National Statistics — which groups death data for flu and pneumonia — shows this category of fatalities were a fifth lower in November than the five year average in England.
However, experts told MailOnline the risk of dual infections will inevitably increase if flu takes off this winter, like seen elsewhere.
She continued: ‘Implementing scrupulous biosecurity has never been more critical.
‘You must regularly clean and disinfect your footwear and clothes before entering enclosures, stop your birds mixing with any wild birds and only allow visitors that are strictly necessary.
‘It is your actions that will help keep your birds safe.’
If outbreaks are serious, many farmers are forced to cull their birds, with footage emerging of thousands of birds being dumped at a farm in Lincolnshire last month.
Horrific images taken at at the LJ Fairburn-owned farm in Alford last month shows lifeless birds being rounded up by JCB diggers and loaded into trucks to be taken away.
Workers can also be seen in blue hazmat suits loading the dead carcasses into industrial wheelbarrows in the county where the virus was first confirmed.
Nine nearby farms nearby had to be shut down following the outbreak at the premises which has supplied eggs to the likes of Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s.
Animal welfare charity Open Cages, which captured the images, is calling for the government to ban factory farming which it says spreads diseases ‘like wildfire.’
Open Cages CEO Connor Jackson, said: ‘These images should shock us more than they do.
‘It’s an absolutely horrendous sight.
‘The ease at which the farming industries cull animal lives shows how little they are valued, no matter how necessary it is to do.
‘We are failing to protect these animals because of our reliance on intensive farming: they should never have been infected in the first place.’
According to the charity, discharge and fluids from the birds can be seen in the machinery as the dust enters the open air.
They also claimed wheelbarrows of dead and possibly infected birds were left in the open air whilst the workers went on lunch break.
Mr Jackson added: ‘Bird flu was once a very rare disease among chickens, but today there are outbreaks occurring every year: this footage helps explain why.
‘When you take tens of thousands of chronically stressed animals and cram them into a filthy indoor facility you create an ideal environment for disease.
‘The more the animals suffer, the more stressed they become, and the less their immune systems can cope.
‘Deadly diseases like bird flu can then emerge easily or give foreign strains the perfect breeding ground.
‘On a factory farm a virus can spread like wildfire and provide an ideal chance to mutate, especially in highly intensified poultry capitals like Lincolnshire, East Anglia and Herefordshire.
‘It’s no surprise that nine farms were hit in the immediate area of where this footage was captured.
‘Clearly, biosecurity and mass killing are not solving this problem as it only addresses symptoms which are getting worse and worse.’
When an outbreak is confirmed UKHSA contacts people who may have also been exposed daily to see if they develop symptoms.
People are also offered anti-viral treatment after exposure to infected birds to stop the virus reproducing in their body.
Danish authorities culled 60,000 turkeys at one farm today adding to the hundreds thousands of poultry that have been culled across the continent in the last few months
Millions of birds, both wild and domesticated are estimated to have died in Europe’s current bird flu outbreak which started in October following the annual autumn migration of waterbirds from Russia and eastern Europe to western wintering grounds
Bird flu outbreaks are also affecting European countries. Personnel of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and of the Danish Emergency Management Agency disposed of thousands of turkeys at a farm near the village of Ruds Vedby
Swabs are also carried out on people even if they do not have symptoms.
Wild bird species involved in the UK outbreak are mostly geese, ducks and swans. A number of birds of prey have also been confirmed to have died.
Dr Middlemiss told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the virus is being spread by migratory birds flying back from the north of Russia and eastern Europe, an annual migratory season that goes on until March.
It has also emerged that at least two of the Queens’ swans have died from bird flu at Windsor, two days after an outbreak of the virus was confirmed in nearby Eton and Maidenhead — where Boris John and Princes William and Harry were pupils at exclusive Eton College.
Swan Support, which rescues sick and injured swans within the Thames Valley area, said two of the birds – a cygnet, a young swan, and a yearling- were found dead from the disease within the flock that lives on the River Thames at Windsor.
It is also possible that other swans have died along the river but their bodies have not yet been recovered.
Under an ancient statute, swans are owned by the reigning monarch.
The dead pair were found yesterday two days after the outbreak in nearby Eton and Maidenhead.
Swan Support said a regular checks had been made on the Windsor flock over the last six weeks with no sign of the virus but a number of swans were now displaying symptoms.
The centre said it was likely the virus had ‘spread from a recent local outbreak’ presumably referring to the Eton and Maidenhead outbreak.
The Queen’s official Swan Marker, who does an annual head count of the River Thames swans every year, has been informed.
Swan Support said: ‘We are sad to report that we have retrieved two dead swans from the Windsor flock – a cygnet and a yearling. Both died from Avian Flu, and whilst we can’t be certain of the source, it is likely it has spread from a recent local outbreak, as we have been checking on the Windsor birds for the past six weeks with no incidence of the virus.
Bird flu near Eton College could see swans and other birds culled in 3km ‘killing zone’
Bird flu has flared near Eton College where Boris Johnson, Prince William and Prince Harry were pupils.
The location hasn’t been revealed but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says a ‘captive bird monitoring controlled zone has been put in place around the premises, spanning three kilometres, and all birds there will be humanely culled’.
It will alarm wildlife lovers because the 3km ‘killing zone’ so close to Eton will cover the River Thames, where there are hundreds of swans – legally owned by the Queen.
Outbreaks of bird flu in other regions have seen swans infected and put down.
The UK is facing its largest ever outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, with more than 60 cases confirmed since the start of November including among flocks of wild geese and ducks.
The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, is urging all poultry keepers ‘not to be complacent and to undertake the urgent biosecurity measures needed to keep their birds safe and help stop the spread of bird flu’.
Public health advice remains that the risk to human health from the virus is very low and that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers.
There is no impact on the consumption of properly cooked poultry products, including eggs.
The owner of the infected birds at Eton must make records of the name and address of any person visiting and whether the person had any contact with poultry or other captive birds.
A record must also be made as soon as reasonably practicable of all poultry and poultry eggs transported or marketed.
The Government urges people not to touch or pick up any dead or sick birds and instead report them by calling 03459 335577.
‘We are now closely monitoring the flock several times a day, and in particular a number of swans that are displaying symptoms.
‘We are in regular contact with the Royal Swan Marker and keeping him informed of all developments.
‘We are working extremely hard to minimise the impact of this virus and stop the spread. Our rescuers are on call 24 hours a day and we will go out immediately as soon as we are informed of a dead bird.’
Swan Support has asked people in Berkshire to keep a look out for any bird seen swimming in circles and unable to hold its head up.
‘We have a designated rescuer in the Reading area who has been dealing with the outbreak there for the past month and now have a designated rescuer in the Windsor area. Both are confined to their individual areas to prevent any cross contamination.
‘It is hard and heartbreaking work but we are dedicated and determined.
‘We are asking for your help as it is vital to contain this outbreak and limit the devastating consequences we know this virus can have.
‘Please pay particular attention to any bird that is swimming in circles and unable to hold its head up. We will then monitor the bird and retrieve it following recommended protocol. We have systems in place to ensure that we do not bring the disease into our facility.’
On the continent, Europe is currently experiencing its ‘strongest avian flu epidemic ever’, according to Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health.
The Netherlands yesterday announced it is culling around 190,000 chickens on two neighbouring farms in the east of the country.
It is the second bird flu outbreak reported in the Netherlands this week, after a similar discovery in the northern province of Friesland led to the culling of around 225,000 chickens there.
And vets in Bulgaria started culling more than 39,000 chickens in the southern village of Krivo Pole on Sunday, while 80,000 Czech birds were killed last week.
Meanwhile, France culled between 600,000 and 650,000 chickens, ducks and other poultry in December alone.
Researchers told German news outlet DPA: ‘There is no end in sight – the countries affected range from Finland to the Faroe Islands to Ireland, from Russia to Portugal.’
The increase in cases started in the second week of October, coinciding with the autumn migration of waterbirds from Russia and eastern Europe to their wintering grounds in other parts of the continent.
Bird flu has been detected 675 times in wild birds and 534 in domestic animals across Europe since then.
Officials have also found the virus in foxes in Finland and the Netherlands, seals in Germany and Sweden an otters in Finland.
In Italy, data from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) show nearly four million birds died in the country because of bird flu between mid-October and December 26.
Outbreaks are less seasonal than they had been previously, with infections being seen over the summer contributing to the overwhelming numbers being seen currently.