You may have noticed the price tags on your eggs and poultry skyrocket over the last few months. This is due to an outbreak of avian influenza, or the bird flu, H5N1.
Perhaps of greater concern, the bird-specific disease has begun to crop up in wild mammal populations and even humans.
What is bird flu?
Bird flu refers to an infection by an avian influenza virus. It is highly contagious and can quickly lead to serious illness or death.
Avian influenza occurs naturally in wild aquatic birds and can easily jump to domestic poultry and other bird species. Wild aquatic birds include everything from ducks and geese to gulls and shorebirds.
The current outbreak of bird flu began in the U.S. in late 2021. It has resulted in the culling of 58 million birds and a shortage of eggs and meat.
This virulent strain of bird flu has begun to “spillover” into mammals, the first step in the virus infecting humans. It has been found in sea lions, bears, foxes, skunks, zoo animals, and even domestic cats and dogs. Only one human in the U.S. is believed to have been infected.
However, our actions and a rapidly changing climate are making us more susceptible to outbreaks.
Am I at risk of bird flu?
Viral spillover, the jump from one host species to another, occurs when animals (including people) are pushed into close proximity to one another. This is happening more and more frequently as warming temperatures and human development destroy habitats and force wildlife, domestic animals, and humans into closer interactions far more often.
The more opportunities a virus has, the more likely it is to adapt to a new host species. A tightly-packed poultry farm offers the perfect setting for avian influenza to spread and adapt.
COVID-19 provides a case study of how these spillover events happen in mixed-species settings, like meat markets where wildlife and domestic animals freely interact.
Luckily, avian influenza viruses do not typically infect people. And while there have been some isolated cases of human infection, human-to-human transmission has never been documented.
The risk, however, remains, and experts are carefully monitoring the situation. So, do you need to be worried about bird flu?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is actively monitoring the outbreak across species and is recommending people avoid exposure whenever possible and practice good hygiene when they do come in contact with a bird.
“We have many of the tools that are needed, including vaccines,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist, wrote for The New York Times. “What’s missing is a sense of urgency and immediate action.”
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