For the first time in five years, wild birds in the United States have been reported with a deadly Eurasian strain of “bird flu.” Believed to have made its way into the U.S. via migrating waterfowl from Western Europe, the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus has the potential to devastate the poultry industry.
Is Avian Flu Dangerous to People?
H5N1 is considered by the CDC to be of low risk to humans. At this time, no human H5N1 infections have ever been reported in the United States. While this news should be a relief, caution must still be exercised. Although infections in humans are extremely uncommon, when H5N1 does manage to infect human beings, mortality rates are concerningly high. According to the CDC, in those instances of human infection fatality rates may be as high as 50%.
The symptoms of H5N1 in humans are similar to those of a typical flu infection. They can include high fevers, muscle aches, headaches, cough, difficulty breathing, sore throat, abdominal pain, gastrointestinal distress, and conjunctivitis.
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What Does H5N1 Mean For Agriculture?
While avian influenza may not currently be considered a serious threat to humans, it is a very real and pressing cause for alarm in agricultural circles. The last time that an outbreak of H5N1 occurred in the United States, in 2015, tens of millions of birds had to be killed. The poultry industry experienced a massive financial blow during said outbreak, which is thought to be the largest outbreak of animal disease ever seen in the US.
Does Avian Flu Threaten Wild Birds?
Wild bird populations experience significant risks from H5N1, though they often fare much better than flocks of poultry. Currently, in the UK, the H5N1 outbreak is believed to be the cause of sharply declining breeding populations of protected barnacle geese.
Songbirds are not considered to be at serious risk from avian flu, however certain types of fowl, scavengers and carrion birds, and birds of prey face greater risks. H5N1 has been estimated to kill as many as 75% of the birds that have been exposed to it.
Where is Avian Flu Spreading?
As of January of 2022, the H5N1 strain has been found in the United States in a select group of individual wild birds in three separate areas in North Carolina. Since being detected, individual cases have also been identified in South Carolina and Virginia. These individuals were predominantly ducks, and though they tested positive for the virus, they seemed to be in reasonably good health.
Avian flu outbreaks have also been reported in the UK and parts of Europe and the Middle East. Residents, especially bird owners, in these regions should adhere to local public safety recommendations regarding limiting the spread of H5N1.
Although numbers are still relatively small, farmers, bird owners, and anyone who interacts with wild birds are being asked to exercise reasonable caution, especially in the regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. For bird owners, this means keeping coops or enclosures clean, avoiding contact with sick or deceased birds, washing hands after interacting with birds, and limiting contact between domestic birds and wild ones. For their part, bird watchers should make an effort to admire wild birds from a safe distance.
The North Carolina Zoo has closed its aviary to the public out of an abundance of caution.
How To Stay Safe From H5N1
If you do not own or regularly interact with birds, then the chances that you will be affected by H5N1 are extremely low. For those who do own birds, the main risk is spreading this deadly infection between birds. While humans should exercise as much caution as possible, human infections remain an exceedingly remote possibility. That said, allowing this virus to spread between birds could be a serious risk to vulnerable bird populations and to nationwide poultry production. For these reasons, individual in affected regions should follow the safety advice of local health authorities and read the CDC’s avian influenza guide for more information.
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