Why Finland Leads the World in Bird Flu Vaccination Without Any Cases

In a groundbreaking move, Finland is poised to launch bird flu vaccinations for humans starting next week, specifically targeting individuals who are at highest risk due to their exposure to animals. This proactive initiative involves vaccinating 10,000 people, each receiving two doses, as part of a larger EU campaign that aims to distribute up to 40 million doses across 15 countries.

CSL Seqirus, the Australian pharmaceutical company responsible for the vaccines, confirmed to Reuters that Finland will be the pioneering country to implement this vaccination program. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) announced, “The vaccine will be offered to individuals aged 18 and above who are at greater risk of contracting avian influenza in their work or other circumstances.”

Despite not having detected any human cases of the virus yet, Finland is taking a preemptive approach to protect its population and mitigate the risks of bird flu, particularly from its fur farms.

From birds to cattle to humans

Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, comprises various influenza type A viruses that primarily impact birds but can also infect non-avian species, including humans. One significant strain, H5N1, has been circulating among wild birds globally.

Birds spread the virus through their saliva, mucus, and feces, posing a threat to individuals and animals in close contact with infected birds or contaminated environments.

In a surprising turn of events in March, the H5N1 strain quickly spread among dairy cow herds in the United States, resulting in what the CDC described as an “ongoing multi-state outbreak.” The US Department of Agriculture reported infections in 101 dairy herds across 12 states, with several cases also identified in dairy workers.

US dairy catte
Dairy cow herds in multiple US states had tested positive for bird flu. Image for Representation. AP

This transmission to cattle surprised scientists who previously believed cows were not susceptible to the virus.

Aside from cattle, the H5N1 outbreak also had a significant impact on poultry. According to the CDC, over 97 million poultry have been affected by the virus as of June 20, resulting in widespread devastation within the industry.

How common is bird flu in humans?

There have been sporadic cases of humans contracting H5N1 in various countries, including Cambodia, Chile, China, Vietnam, Australia, the US, and the UK.

Earlier this year, when H5N1 spread to US cow herds, several dairy workers were found to be infected, though their symptoms were mild.

There is no evidence it virus can morph into a form that would pose a big threat to humans, however two eminent flu experts warned in an article in the British Medical Journal: 'the hazard and risk of a major outbreak of H5N1 are large, plausible and imminent.' Image for Representation. AP
There is no evidence it virus can morph into a form that would pose a big threat to humans, however, two eminent flu experts warned in an article in the British Medical Journal: ’the hazard and risk of a major outbreak of H5N1 are large, plausible and imminent.’ Image for Representation. AP

Generally, humans contract bird flu through direct contact with infected animals or their byproducts, such as carcasses, saliva, or feces. The virus is also airborne, meaning inhaling near an infected animal can lead to infection.

A notable case emerged in May involving a 59-year-old man in Mexico who died from H5N2, a strain of bird flu never previously seen in humans. The source of his infection remains unknown. Professor Sir Peter Horby, director of the Pandemic Sciences Institute at the University of Oxford, told the BBC, “This case is one more in a series of developments that collectively could be considered a red flag.”

Although there is no evidence that the virus can mutate into a form posing a significant threat to humans, two prominent flu experts cautioned in an article in the British Medical Journal: “the hazard and risk of a major outbreak of H5N1 are large, plausible and imminent.”

Finland’s proactive measures

Last year, Finland faced significant bird flu outbreaks on mink and fox fur farms, especially those that are open-air. These outbreaks resulted in the culling of approximately 485,000 animals to contain the virus. The virus also caused the deaths of thousands of seagulls and other bird species, threatened livestock, and led to travel restrictions in certain areas.

“Mink is a particularly problematic species in terms of avian influenza infections,” a THL representative informed Reuters, underscoring that mink can act as an efficient intermediate host, facilitating the virus to mutate into forms more prone to infecting humans.

Finnish authorities have identified several high-risk groups for vaccination, including workers at fur and poultry farms, lab technicians handling bird flu samples, veterinarians functioning as animal control officers in fur farm regions, and individuals working in sanctuaries, livestock farms, or facilities processing animal by-products.

Vaccinations are slated to commence as soon as next week in various regions of the country. A THL spokesperson mentioned to Reuters that in case of human bird flu infections, close contacts of suspected or confirmed cases will also be offered the vaccine.

With input from agencies

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