Current epidemic of avian influenza (bird flu)

If you’ve been walking along Scotland’s coastlines recently, particularly in the north and east, you might have seen a number of dead birds on the beaches. This is a sad indication of the impact that the avian influenza virus (‘bird flu’) is having on colonies of seabirds such as gulls, terns and the already-vulnerable kittiwake and guillemot populations.

Over the last two years we’ve seen an unprecedented outbreak of bird flu among bird species around the world – Scotland is not alone in noticing this increasing number of bird deaths. It now seems likely that bird flu is going to be with us throughout the year, rather than seasonally.

There are different strains (subtypes) of bird flu, but a particular subtype is associated with the current epidemic in birds. This subtype is known as H5N1 and has the potential, albeit small, to spread between birds and humans. There have also been occasional reports of H5N1 being detected in wild mammals such as seals, otters and foxes, which may have been feeding on dead birds. Although H5N1 is still mainly a bird disease, we still have much to learn about the changing nature and effects of this virus.

How can you minimise the risks from bird flu?

While the current evidence is that bird flu does not pass easily to humans, you can minimise the risks by taking the following precautions:

  • Keep away from dead wild birds and do not touch any sick or dead wild birds.
  • Keep dogs on leads around coastal areas where there are sick or dead birds, to prevent any contact with carcases.
  • If you find a dead wild mammal that’s suspected of having been infected with bird flu, do not pick them up and do not handle them. Instead report it to your local Nature Scot office.
  • Take basic hygiene precautions, such as washing hands, if you have been in the vicinity of wild birds or wild mammals, including if you have touched feathers or bird droppings.
  • If you keep poultry such as ducks or chickens, or have birds of any species that are kept outside, remain vigilant for signs of illness or sudden death in the flock and, if bird flu is suspected, report it to your local Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) Field Services Office.
  • If you think you may have been exposed to bird flu and become ill, please contact your GP surgery or NHS111.

What is Public Health Scotland doing?

Public Health Scotland is taking steps to minimise the risk to humans from H5N1 by working with partner agencies at Scottish Government, UKHSA, the Animal and Plant Health Agency and NatureScot. Together we are monitoring the changes in trends of avian influenza cases in birds and animals from surveillance, maintaining vigilance around any changes in the virus that indicate a potential increased risk to humans, and maintaining public awareness around the risks from the virus. We also provide guidance to Health Protection Teams across Scotland for the management of individuals who may have been exposed to bird flu, either from contact with wild birds or from occupational exposure on poultry premises that have been affected by avian influenza.

What can you do?

As a member of the public, the main thing you can do is to follow the simple steps highlighted in this blog on keeping safe around wild birds, maintaining hygiene precautions and reporting suspected cases.

Scottish Government has further information about how to spot and report the disease in kept birds such as poultry, how to report dead or sick wild birds and how to minimise the risk of avian influenza to pets.

If you are a keeper of poultry or other bird species, implementing biosecurity measures can help minimise the risk of avian influenza to your flock.

Last updated: 11 August 2023