Avian Influenza Infects Cats In Poland, Risk Of Human Infection ‘Low’, Says WHO


The cases of avian influenza among cats in Poland are rising, because of which there is a looming fear of the infection spreading to humans. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the risk of infection with influenza A virus, the pathogen responsible for influenza in birds, is low among humans following exposure to infected cats. Therefore, even if humans are exposed to cats infected with influenza A, the chances of the former contracting the virus is low. As many as 29 cats in Poland were found to be infected with influenza A, and hence, Polish sources are investigating all potential sources of infection, the WHO said on July 16, 2023.

No humans who came in contact with cats positive for A(H5N1), the scientific name of influenza A, reported any symptoms as of July 12, 2023, the WHO said in a statement. 

Risk of influenza A infection in humans following exposure to infected cats

The WHO has said that the risk of infection with influenza A is low to moderate for cat owners, and those occupationally exposed to cats infected with the virus. For instance, veterinarians have a low to moderate risk of contracting the disease in case they do not use appropriate personal protective equipment. 

The surveillance period of all contacts has been completed. 

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Infected cats and the possible sources of infection

The International Health Regulations (IHR) National Focal Point (NFP) of Poland reported unusual cat deaths in the country, across 13 geographical areas, to the WHO, on June 27, 2023. An IHR NFP is a national office or centre that is accessible at all times for communications related to International Health Regulations with the WHO and other relevant sectors within the country. 

As many as 47 samples from 46 cats and one captive caracal were tested as of July 11. Of these, 29 were found to be infected with influenza A. The WHO said that 14 cats were euthanized, and 11 died. The last death was reported on June 30. 

The WHO is currently not sure of the source of infection. 

Cats who ate infected birds or food contaminated with the virus could be the possible sources of infection, according to the WHO. 

Information about 25 cats is available. Of these, two were outdoor, 18 were indoor with access to a balcony, terrace or backyard, and five did not have access to the outside environment. As many as seven cats reportedly had the opportunity for contact with wild birds. 

There have been cases of influenza A infection in cats in the past, but this is the first time a large number of infection cases among cats over a wide geographical area within a country has been reported.

WHO’s advice to people and health authorities

The WHO has advised individuals exposed to animal influenza viruses, and all contacts of confirmed human cases to monitor their health for the duration of the known exposure period, and seven additional days at a minimum. 

People exposed to known infected poultry, wild birds or other animals must be placed under close monitoring by local health authorities, the WHO has said. In this way, an influenza A infection, if any, will be detected early, and the disease could be managed in a timely manner. 

The WHO has also said that health authorities must be notified in the event of a person suspected of having zoonotic influenza. 

Overall, public health and animal health authorities have been advised to conduct joint risk assessment and response to outbreaks of zoonotic influenza.

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