Why you should care about avian flu in new animals

Image courtesy of The African Union Mission in Somalia via Wikimedia Commons.

For most of us, the flu is not much more than an annoyance. Cold-like symptoms for a week, missing classes and then the worst of it is over. For those of us who are immunocompromised, more serious symptoms may occur, perhaps severely debilitating us and warranting a trip to the hospital. The word “flu” itself, though, does not evoke much more than a brief pause—it is a seasonal part of our lives today. 

But the reality is that even in the most tame of flu seasons, some of our society’s most vulnerable people are killed by this illness. The CDC estimates that from 2010 to 2020, anywhere between 12,000 and 52,000 flu deaths occurred in the United States. This seasonal disease can be caused by several different variants of the influenza virus, differentiated by a tag such as “H3N2,” which refers to the specific configuration of proteins on the surface of the virus. 

Some variants of influenza are rarer and mostly occur only in animals—for now. One that comes to mind is H1N1, also called “swine flu,” which, according to the CDC, caused approximately 12,000 deaths in the United States when it peaked in 2009-2010. 

Right now, a flu strain called H5N1—commonly referred to as avian influenza—is of particular concern. As the name suggests, it is particularly fatal to birds, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting almost 59 million bird deaths since early 2022 as a result of the current spread of this particular flu strain. 

Have you noticed the price of your eggs go up recently? That’s because poultry have been particularly affected by the current avian flu outbreak, with NPR reporting that millions of birds have been culled as a result of the highly infectious nature of the disease. As devastating as these statistics are, previously, the risk of avian flu jumping into humans and transmitting between us had remained relatively low, with the World Health Organization reporting only 540 cases since 2003. Although the virus has crossed over into humans occasionally—particularly in the case of people who are in direct contact with the birds that carry this disease—outbreaks in humans were short-lived. 

Recently, this has not been the case. According to The New York Times, scientists have increasingly detected the virus in wild migratory birds, which means it is able to be transported virtually anywhere in the world, infecting many other birds as it goes. 

Most concerningly, the virus is affecting more and more mammals. There have been several isolated incidents over the years, including raccoons, bears, foxes, seals, dolphins and opossums, according to Science and Smithsonian Magazine. But one recent incident of an outbreak on a mink farm in Spain has been the cause of particular concern. According to Science, transmission at this particular farm undoubtedly occurred through mink-to-mink contact, suggesting that the virus is evolving in a way which makes it easier to spread between mammals. The previous form of avian influenza was particularly well-suited to infect birds, which have a different respiratory system than humans do, which may have been the reason why it was fairly difficult for humans to contract the disease from birds. But the respiratory systems of all the mammals that have recently been infected are much more similar to the human respiratory system, which could suggest that the virus is changing in ways which may make it easier to transmit from human-to-human. 

Though it is still too early to know whether this current outbreak of avian influenza will hop into humans and become the next pandemic, it is clear that the virus is trying to find new species to infect. Although the virus does not have the brainpower to decide who it wants to infect next, it is always evolving in ways that will allow it to spread as far as possible, and if humans are the best organism to help it do so, it will undoubtedly become well-suited to transmit between humans. 

The scariest part about this current avian influenza outbreak is its mortality rate, almost 56 percent, according to the WHO. To compare this to the seasonal flu outbreak in 2019-2020, according to Statista, the death rate was as low as 0.3 percent for those who are at the least risk and as much as 22.1 percent for those at the highest risk. A 56 percent death rate would be absolutely devastating to the human population.

We can sit here and wring our hands, waiting for the other shoe to drop—or we can act now. Though it is too early to panic about the spread of this disease, investing now may help us if this becomes a serious disease, or even if it is another disease that causes the next pandemic. On a global level, world organizations can do much more to prevent this disease from becoming a pandemic. This includes increasing surveillance and testing for the disease in both wildlife and humans who are most at risk (poultry workers, farm workers, etc.). It also means international cooperation between nations and ensuring that data regarding the spread of avian influenza is shared. These are many of the missteps from the early days of COVID-19 that can be rectified in order to prevent another pandemic.

On a personal level, there are a few steps that can be taken. First, we must prevent ourselves from minimizing the potential harm that this disease can cause if it takes off amongst humans. To do this, we must learn from our personal experiences in the early days of COVID-19. We all heard about, and may have even participated in, efforts to undermine the severity of the disease. All that got us was 1.1 million deaths in under three years, according to the CDC. Instead, we must be watchful and attempt to prevent the spread of misinformation as best we can. We must also invest in caring for our communities. With the spread of almost any disease, we—young adults—are usually the least affected population. But even amongst us, there are those who are immunocompromised who experience disease in radically different ways. Most of us have loved ones we care about who are older and may be more at risk for various diseases. Caring about the health and wellbeing of these people may very well be the difference between life and death. 

We must take the lessons from the pandemic we just lived through and apply them to prevent future pandemics. Though avian influenza may not necessarily be next, another pandemic will happen inevitably, and we must be prepared when it does.

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