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Home » Bird flu outbreaks — what are the scientific facts

Bird flu outbreaks — what are the scientific facts


Here we go again — scattered outbreaks of a novel disease, this time bird flu, and everyone wants to know if this is a thing or not. I remember posting on Twitter four years ago that I thought the press was overreacting to this new virus out of China, and a few weeks later we had the COVID pandemic which killed millions of people.

I am not going to overreact or underreact to this bird flu. It is a thing, but we don’t know how big of a thing it is. So, I’ll just write about what we know, and let’s hope it does not become a thing.

Like it usually is for any disease that shows up, the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) is all over this.

flock of hens on green field bird flu
Photo by Alexas Fotos on Pexels.com

All about bird flu

Avian influenza, what everyone is now calling “bird flu,” is a subtype of type A influenza, designated as A(H5N1). Without getting into all the details of the naming system, the designation is based on antigens common to this subtype of influenza. There is another avian influenza designated as A(H7N9), but the current outbreak appears to be the H5N1 subtype.

As the name implies, these viruses usually affect birds but they can occasionally pass from birds to humans, cattle, pigs, and other animals. The H5N1 subtype arose in Asia a few years ago and has spread across the world. It is highly pathogenic (meaning it can disease in humans) and has passed to humans several times.

Infected birds shed the bird flu virus through their saliva, mucous, and feces. Human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when the virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth, or is inhaled. This can happen when the virus is in the air (in droplets or possibly dust) and a person breathes it in, or possibly when a person touches something that has the virus on it and then touches their mouth, eyes, or nose. Human infections with bird flu viruses have occurred most often after unprotected contact with infected birds or surfaces contaminated with bird flu viruses. However, some infections have been identified where direct contact with infected birds or their environment was not known to have occurred.

There are numerous cases where bird flu has been transmitted between humans, but most infections of humans are from constant contact with infected birds. Human infection with avian influenza A virus poses pandemic potential, so CDC and other public health agencies investigate every case to assess whether human-to-human transmission might have occurred. Detailed public health investigations can help determine whether person-to-person spread of an avian influenza A virus occurred.

The signs and symptoms of bird flu infections in humans can range from nothing to severe. The infections are similar to other flu infections including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

H5N1 has been around for a few years, and the CDC has stockpiles of vaccines for the H5N1 and H7N9 subtypes. And if either avian influenza mutates, the CDC has a method to quickly develop new vaccines.

bird flu

Current situation with bird flu

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has affected 48 states and 513 counties, together reporting 1,116 outbreaks in birds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest update on 3 April 2024. Only Hawaii and Louisiana are reporting no cases of the H5N1 strain of the bird flu.

As of 1 April 2024, there have been only two cases in humans, one in Texas. That individual only had mild symptoms and has fully recovered. That person contracted the disease from an infected herd of cattle. I do not have much information about the second case.

Summary

I’m not going to say that I’m worried, because I’m not. There is no indication of some mutation that is going to cause the flu to spread widely to humans across the USA or the world. However, pandemics don’t start with a bang, they usually start quietly until suddenly hundreds and thousands of people are infected. That’s the basis of a lot of good novels about pandemics.

That being said, I think the good scientists of the CDC are monitoring this carefully. They have been watching and researching avian influenza for nearly 20 years, so they will know when there is some trigger that turns this from a casual interest to a full-blown panic.

And I hate to say this, because it might come back to haunt me, but the press seems to be overreacting to just two cases. Then again, that’s how the COVID pandemic started.

Michael Simpson

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