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New evidence sheds light on health emergency as virus rapidly spreads and evolves — here's what you need to know

If you encounter a sick or dead animal, the best thing to do is reach out to the nearest state or federal wildlife agency.

If you encounter a sick or dead animal, the best thing to do is reach out to the nearest state or federal wildlife agency.

Photo Credit: iStock

A new report is drawing attention to an evolving virus that surprised scientists after being detected in dairy cows in the United States.  

What's happening?

In June, The Conversation highlighted how the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 has spread rapidly around the globe after first being found in China in 1997. 

Rising global temperatures appear to be playing a significant role in the prevalence of the virus as well as the emergence of new variants, according to multiple studies

In part, birds' migratory patterns are changing, and new species are interacting. Meanwhile, warmer winters may be aiding the survival of certain pathogens, while wetter weather can help keep the virus alive in bird droppings and water sources.   

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that other animals impacted by the virus include swans, foxes, bears, alpacas, and sea lions. 

In March, farms in Kansas and Texas reported the first cases of H5N1 in dairy cows. The following month, a person was infected with the virus after direct contact with a cow. It was the second human case in the U.S. and first connected to cattle. Three infections have now been linked to U.S. dairy farms.

Why is this important?

The spread of the virus in the animal world has raised fears about biodiversity loss. For example, the seals on the United Kingdom's South Georgia Island experienced a mass mortality event

H5N1 has also devastated poultry farms, with millions of birds needing to be culled. This has led to rising costs for nutritious staples such as eggs. An agricultural economist told the Associated Press that estimated losses exceed $1 billion in the U.S. alone.  

An update by the CDC on June 24 stated that the public health risk is low but that it is tracking the development of the virus. According to a study in the National Library of Medicine, H5N1 has a high mortality rate in humans, killing more than 50% of people infected. 

H5N1 isn't the only disease that has raised alarm bells in 2024. Soaring rates of mosquito-borne infections, including dengue and malaria, have caused health emergencies in multiple countries, including Brazil and India. Scientists believe warmer global temperatures are also facilitating this trend, as mosquitoes can reproduce more easily in these conditions. 

What's being done about H5N1?

While H5N1 is undoubtedly an area of concern, the World Health Organization notes that most of the cases in humans have occurred after direct contact with live or dead birds. 

At this time, there aren't known cases of human-to-human transmission. The three infections linked to U.S. dairy farms were the result of direct contact with cows, and workers weren't wearing protective equipment as recommended. 

If you encounter a sick or dead animal, the best thing to do is reach out to the nearest state or federal wildlife agency, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The CDC also notes that it is monitoring infections so that it can develop an action plan if needed.  

Other developments include a breakthrough with gene-edited chickens that appear to be resistant to H5N1. Additionally, the adoption and development of cleaner technologies worldwide provide hope for a healthier, cooler tomorrow.

For example, the Solar for All program in the U.S. has allocated billions of dollars to improve access to non-polluting solar power for low-income households, helping these homeowners save money on their utility bills.

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