Could a highly pathogenic bird flu lead to an outbreak in 2022?

Bird-to-human infections have been rare, but this may not be the case for long.
Derya Ozdemir

Avian influenza, also known as "bird flu," is a contagious viral infection that can infect a variety of food-producing birds, pet birds, and wild birds.

And with recent outbreaks of the disease in the United States, Canada, and China, a strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIv), H5N1, is becoming a global issue, as it has the potential to significantly handicap poultry production. 

The virus has already wreaked havoc in Asia, Africa, and Europe, killing millions of poultry and wild birds. Now, in a new article published in Science Tuesday, researchers warn that bird flu outbreaks are a global concern that must be mitigated by governments before the virus has the chance to evolve to spread among humans.

What is H5N1? 

H5N1 is a type of influenza virus that causes a highly infectious and severe respiratory disease in birds. While human cases of the disease occur occasionally, the infections are difficult to spread from person to person. When someone becomes infected, the mortality rate is roughly 60 percent, according to WHO.

Bird flu has been detected in at least 24 U.S. states, and as of April 3, 2022, more than 23 million chickens, turkeys, and game birds in commercial and backyard flocks have been culled after the disease was detected on their premises.

“The ongoing 2021–2022 wave of avian influenza H5N1 is unprecedented in its rapid spread and extremely high frequency of outbreaks in poultry and wild birds, and is a continuing potential threat to humans,” Michelle Wille and Ian Barr, Australian researchers at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, explained in a statement. 

H5N1 is to blame for the most current wave of infections, and it can be absolutely deadly in bird populations. The virus has already resulted in mass mortality events in wild birds. This threatens whole populations, particularly those that are already endangered, and the virus has already had a substantial impact on poultry production, according to the researchers, roughly 15 million poultry have been culled or have died because of H5N1 in 2020 and 2021 alone.

Should you be worried?

Although the virus can infect humans, bird-to-human infections have been uncommon in the last two decades. Still, it should be noted that poultry workers who may come into contact with infected birds face an elevated danger.

According to the experts, prolonged human-to-human transmission has yet to be documented, and further adaptation to this already dangerous virus could boost its ability to efficiently transmit between humans, posing a potential pandemic risk.

If we want to combat such a scenario, international health and agricultural organizations must take each avian influenza outbreak seriously, especially in environments where humans are directly involved, according to Wille and Barr. They advocate for sustained investment in monitoring wild birds and poultry, as well as humans at the human-poultry interface.

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