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What is bird flu and what are the symptoms? Turkeys back for Christmas dinner

Bird flu requires prompt and expert help if you recognise any symptoms of the disease  (Owen Humphreys / PA Archive)
Bird flu requires prompt and expert help if you recognise any symptoms of the disease (Owen Humphreys / PA Archive)

Due to a decrease in occurrences of a particularly severe type of avian flu that caused shortages and culls last year, turkey growers are optimistic about this Christmas.

Instead of nearly 90 outbreaks like this time last year, the BBC shared that only 16 outbreaks have been recorded since August.

Last winter, a scarcity of free-range turkeys caused by avian flu mortality and culls put farmers in a dangerous situation. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) urged pet owners to keep their cats indoors and dogs on leads, as record cases of bird flu were seen across the globe.

Scientists have also reported finding evidence of immunity in wild birds that have previously shared the virus.

In addition, the team of researchers from eight prestigious UK labs has found that the virus can only fly less than 10 metres and is "very unlikely" to spread between farms.

However, humans who contract bird flu, also known as avian influenza, may suffer serious infection and can develop symptoms after merely inhaling infected air from a farm.

But what is bird flu, what should you do if you see an affected bird, and is poultry still safe to eat? Here is everything you need to know.

What is bird flu and how is it transmitted?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says wild birds migrating to the UK from mainland Europe during the winter months can carry the disease. This can lead to cases in poultry and other captive birds.

Birds can be infected with the avian influenza virus through contact with infected birds or waste products. Wild birds including waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese) can carry and transmit the virus without showing evidence of disease, according to Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland.

How do you spot bird flu?

There are two types of avian influenza, with highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) being the more serious type. It is often fatal in birds.

Some of the clinical signs of HPAI in birds include a sudden and rapid increase in the number of birds found dead; several birds affected in the same shed or air space; a swollen head; closed and excessively watery eyes; head and body tremoring; drooping of the wings and/or dragging of legs; twisting of the head and neck; and swelling and blue discolouration of comb and wattles.

Other signs include haemorrhages on the shanks of the legs and under the skin of the neck; loss of appetite or marked decrease in feed consumption; a sudden increase or decrease in water consumption; respiratory distress; sneezing; a noticeable increase in body temperature; discoloured or loose, watery droppings; and cessation or a marked reduction in egg production.

What can the Government do about bird flu?

Now the risk has lessened, the RSPB is calling for UK governments to protect wildlife.

The charity said: “In the longer term, we want much higher importance being given to prioritising and funding seabird conservation. This would help make our seabird populations more resilient to these diseases and the other challenges they face.”

What is the risk to the public from bird flu?

The risk to human health from the virus is very low. Food standards bodies advise that avian influenzas pose a very low food-safety risk for UK consumers, according to Defra.

People are advised not to touch or pick up any dead or sick birds that they find and instead report them to the relevant helpline.

Defra says there is no impact on the consumption of properly cooked poultry products, including eggs and turkey. So you can still have a traditional roast this Christmas.

Is it still okay to feed birds in your garden amid bird flu?

The RSPB says everyone should take care to maintain good hygiene when feeding garden birds. It also recommends “regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, and washing your hands”.

UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said people who keep chickens and want to feed wild birds need to make sure everything is kept “scrupulously clean” and “absolutely separate” to avoid infecting their own flocks.

What should you do if you see a sick or injured bird?

The RSPB says if people find any dead waterfowl, any gulls or birds of prey, or five or more of any other species in one place, they should report them to the Defra helpline on 03459 335577 or in Northern Ireland to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) on 0300 200 7840.

The RSPB also advises that people who live in bird-flu areas should keep their dogs on a lead, as the virus can be passed to pets.