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Analysis: H5N6 avian influenza strain can easily spread from bird to bird

H5N6, a highly pathogenic avian influenza strain recently detected in Japan and other Asian countries, can easily spread between birds, it has been learned, and an expert is warning that thorough care must be taken to prevent further infections.

    This month there have been 19 confirmed cases of H5N6 being detected in wild birds in Japan -- in Akita, Kagoshima, Tottori and Iwate prefectures. Cases found at an Aomori farm and a chicken farm in Niigata Prefecture are also thought to be of this strain.

    Avian influenza infects livestock birds like chickens and ducks, and is thought to be carried to Japan by migratory wild ducks. The H5N6 strain appeared in China about 10 years ago, from where it gradually spread to surrounding countries. This year it has been a problem in South Korea, where it has appeared around the country.

    Koichi Otsuki, professor of veterinary microbiology at Kyoto Sangyo University and head of its avian influenza research center, says H5N6 is "a mutated virus of H5N1, which spread in Southeast Asia starting in 2003," and that H5N6 is highly pathogenic just like H5N1. He adds that H5N6 "may have spread to areas in Japan besides the Tohoku, Kyushu and Chugoku regions where it has been detected, and anti-contagion measures like preventing wild birds from entering chicken farms and using disinfectants are important."

    According to the World Health Organization, in China people have been infected by the H5N6 strain, with six deaths since 2014. While people can't get infected by the birds without heavy contact, Otsuki warns, "If someone finds a dead wild bird, I want them to avoid touching it and to report it to a sanitation center."

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