Health and Healthcare Systems

Bird flu spread a ‘great concern’, plus other top health stories

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Chickens are seen as an Egyptian veterinarian administers an avian flu vaccination.

A recent bird flu outbreak has seen the virus spread from poultry to other animals. Image: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
  • This global round-up brings you health stories from the past fortnight.
  • Top health news: WHO warns on bird flu risk; health-harming heat stress rising in Europe; AI model ‘almost matches experts’ in assessing eye conditions.

1. Spread of bird flu infections a ‘significant public health concern’: WHO

Senior United Nations scientists have called the ongoing global spread of bird flu infections to mammals, including humans, a “significant public health concern”.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN’s health agency, said the spread of the avian influenza virus – also known as H5N1 – has had an “extremely high” mortality rate among the several hundred people known to have been infected to date.

He said that over the past few years, H5N1 has spread from poultry and ducks to other animals, such as dairy cows in the US, to become a global zoonotic pandemic.

No human-to-human bird flu infection has yet been recorded, and bodies including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the UK Health Security Agency have said the risk to the public remains low. But the virus evolving to be able to spread from human to human is “a great concern”, Farrar said. He called for monitoring and investigation by health authorities into how transmission may evolve.

We have to “make sure that if H5N1 did come across to humans with human-to-human transmission, that we were in a position to immediately respond with access equitably to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics,” he said.

2. Heat and health make headlines across the globe

As the climate crisis leads to longer, hotter and more frequent bouts of extreme heat, the effect on health is making headlines worldwide.

In the US, the CDC has reported that heat-related health emergencies reached record levels in some parts of the country last year. Heat-related illnesses during the warm season accounted for a 20% larger share of emergency department visits than they did in the five previous seasons, it said.

In Europe, where temperatures are rising at around twice the global average, scientists have warned people are increasingly facing bouts of heat too intense for the human body to cope. The number of days with extreme heat stress – for which immediate action is required to avoid heat stroke – hit a record there in 2023.

Bar graph showing the percentage of days per year with extreme heat stress.
Across Europe, temperatures are rising at around twice the global average, leading to more days of 'extreme heat stress'. Image: Copernicus Climate Change Service

In 2023, heat-related deaths increased across almost all of the continent, according to data published by the World Meteorological Organization and the Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Heat-related illnesses can range from sunburn to life-threatening issues such as heat stroke and a high risk of organ failure.

The CDC said that understanding trends and differences in preparedness for heat-related illness can help public health officials create strategies for intervention.

3. News in brief: Health stories from around the world

The WHO has updated its terminology to describe how pathogens spread through the air. The body sought input on a “shared language” from experts and health agencies to address definitions that varied across scientific disciplines, organizations and the general public. It said during COVID-19, this had “contributed to challenges in public communication and efforts to curb the transmission of the pathogen”.

GPT-4, the generative AI model from OpenAI, has become “almost indistinguishable from experts” in assessing eye conditions, according to the lead author of new research. The model outperformed junior doctors and achieved similar results to many specialists, the paper said – and it could be used in the triage of patients or where access to specialist healthcare professionals was limited.

Eye problems could help predict dementia 12 years before it is diagnosed, according to a new study. This is because toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease may first affect parts of the brain associated with vision, the researchers said.

The maker of weight loss drug Zepbound has said it could help people with obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that causes people to momentarily stop breathing while they are sleeping. A trial showed that adult patients with obesity and sleep apnea who had taken the drug saw an improvement in their sleep apnea when compared with adults who did not receive the drug for the disorder.

Long-acting drugs to prevent or treat HIV could be available in the next 5 to 10 years, according to a report in The New York Times. Scientists are “closing in” on alternatives to drugs that must be taken daily, the paper says.

Drug shortages have reached a record high in the first three months of 2024, according to data from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) and the University of Utah Drug Information Service. Diabetes and weight loss drugs are among those facing shortages.


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4. More on health from Agenda

The climate crisis isn’t just one of the biggest challenges to the health of our planet – it impacts human health worldwide. This article, published on Earth Day, looks at five key climate issues that affect our health.

About 70% of deaths globally are attributable to physical inactivity, poor diet, excess alcohol consumption and smoking – with a profound impact on societal health. This article looks at how forming healthy exercise habits can have a positive impact on overall health and why it's never too late to start.

Researchers have discovered a way to eliminate harmful ‘forever chemicals’, or PFAS, from drinking water. These chemicals usually take hundreds or thousands of years to break down and have been linked to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility issues and cancer.

1. Spread of bird flu infections a ‘significant public health concern’: WHO2. Heat and health make headlines across the globe3. News in brief: Health stories from around the world4. More on health from Agenda

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