What began in early 2022 has turned into a persistent and increasingly alarming bird flu epidemic. The threat is currently limited to poultry – affecting at least 58 million birds and sending. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the threat to public health remains low, meaning people who don’t work or spend time with birds are not at risk. Those who work around birds, including poultry farmers and hunters, should take precautions, including wearing gloves and protective equipment.
Now, amid fears that the virus will begin to spread to humans and the fact that it continues to ravage farms across the country, US government officials are considering vaccinating poultry, according to a report in The New York Times. A mass avian flu vaccination campaign targeting poultry will be the first in the U.S., the Times reports, but some tests of potential vaccines for poultry are underway.
“There is a set of options that the United States regularly considers when there is any outbreak that could affect the security and safety of the United States’ food supply,” a National Security Council spokesperson told CNET. “We are currently focused on promoting and improving biosafety practices and procedures with high impact.”
As long as animals and humans live, work and congregate around each other, there will be a risk that viruses will mutate enough to make the jump from species to species. Fortunately, bird flu has so far been rare in humans, in part because the virus does not spread as easily from animals to humans or between humans. Recently, two family members contracted bird flu in Cambodia and one of them died. The CDC said in an early March memorandum that both cases likely resulted from contact between birds and humans near the shared household and that there is currently no evidence of human-to-human spread. There was alsoin the US, in someone who has had direct contact with birds. (This US case may also have resulted from the virus infecting the nasal passages rather than causing an actual infection.)
Still, some “sporadic” human cases of bird flu in the U.S. “would not be surprising” given the number of sick birds as well as human infections in other countries that have been exposed to bird flu, the CDC said in statement from November. But the fact that bird flu continues to spread widely and expose more species to the virus keeps the door open for the virus to adapt and spread from person to person. If or when bird flu starts to spread from person to person, that will cause problems, according to Dr. Meg Schaefer, an epidemiologist and national public health adviser at the SAS Institute, a data analytics firm.
“The concerns are that it continues to spread — so that’s one problem because the more activity you have, the more likely the virus is to spread from animals to humans,” said Schaeffer, who works with the data upgrade for public health, including some work with the CDC and USDA. Even more troubling, she said, is that scientists may not be able to catch it quickly if it spreads outside, where avian flu is currently being seen, to people reacting to sick poultry, which means:
“It’s probably going to start happening before we know it.”
Here’s what you need to know about bird flu, or avian influenza.
What is bird flu?
Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, is a disease caused by infection with influenza type A viruses. These viruses can circulate among birds worldwide and have rarely infected humans, primarily those who work directly with infected birds . If the viruses mutate enough, the public health concern is that they could make the jump and spread to humans. Bird flu was first detected and controlled in 1997, but re-emerged in 2003 and began to spread widely among birds.
The predominant bird flu virus in the world is H5N1, according to the CDC. Since 2003, more than 880 cases of earlier H5N1 strains have been reported in humans.
Influenza viruses that cause bird flu are either “low pathogenic” or “highly pathogenic”. Highly pathogenic avian influenza can cause severe illness or death in poultry, and these are the cases reported by the USDA. Both low-pathogenic and highly pathogenic viruses have caused mild to severe disease in infected humans.
The World Health Organization reports four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C, and D. Type A viruses, which are found in both humans and various animal species, are the greatest threat to public health and can cause pandemics , says the WHO. The “swine flu” of the 2009 pandemic was caused by a type A virus. Seasonal influenza viruses in humans are caused by type A and type B viruses.
Is it deadly?
Although human cases remain rare, about half of previous human infections with H5N1 have resulted in death, the CDC said. But as the agency noted in its April statement on the bird flu case in humans, the current H5N1 appears to be different from previous strains.
But because of the potential for a serious health threat, the WHO, CDC and USDA are closely monitoring outbreaks in the US and other countries. The CDC said it has “produced a vaccine candidate virus” if needed in response to a potential public health threat.
Where is it in the US? How is it monitored?
Avian influenza has been detected and reported to the USDA in wild and domestic birds in most US states – 46, according to the CDC’s release in early November.
Henry Niemann, a biochemist in Pittsburgh, has been tracking the epidemic (as reported by The New York Times), and his map offers a visual representation of the epidemic across the country.
The first case was in a wild bird in South Carolina. Other cases have been reported in some backyard flocks as well as some poultry farms where animals are raised commercially for food. Any birds from flocks that have cases of bird flu will not enter the food system, the USDA said.
Can people get bird flu? Here are the precautions you should take
Birds can shed the bird flu virus in their saliva, feces and mucus, according to the CDC. People can get sick by breathing in the virus or by touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Most human cases of bird flu are reported in people who work directly with birds.
To avoid getting sick, avoid contact with wild birds, don’t touch dead or sick birds you see, and avoid visiting bird markets or farms if you’re traveling to another country, according to the CDC.
Additional precautions or monitoring may be taken if you work directly with birds, if you hunt birds, or if you are a healthcare worker. If you have contact with an infected bird, contact your local or state health department. Here is a directory of local health departments in the US.
To avoid poultry contamination of any kind, make sure you handle your poultry and eggs properly and cook them thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the USDA says, to kill bacteria and viruses.
You can also report a dead bird to your local health department or wildlife agency, which will help public health officials track down not only bird flu, but also viruses like West Nile virus. Reporting dead birds can be especially important if you see more than one.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.