Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, has recently made headlines in the United States. While the overall public health risk remains low, it’s essential to stay informed about this viral infection that primarily affects birds.

What Is Bird Flu?

Bird flu is caused by the H5N1 virus and is typically found in wild birds. However, there have been rare cases of human infection. The recent outbreak has raised concerns, but let’s break down what we know:

Recent Cases

  • Human Case: A dairy worker in Texas tested positive for bird flu. Fortunately, their illness was mild—an eye infection—and they are already on the path to recovery.
  • Goats in Minnesota: Last month, goats in Minnesota also tested positive for bird flu.
  • Dairy Cows: The virus has now been confirmed in dairy cows in Texas, Michigan, Kansas, New Mexico, and Idaho. In some cases, it appears to have spread between cows. “Exactly what happens when an avian flu virus replicates in a cow and potentially transmits from cow to cow, we actually don’t have any idea at all,” says Richard Webby, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who studies avian influenza.
Cows catching Bird Flu

The spread of bird flu among cows is concerning, but it’s not as alarming as if the infections were occurring in pigs. Pigs serve as an ideal melting pot for flu viruses due to their susceptibility to swine flu, avian influenza, and human influenza. In fact, the 2009 swine flu outbreak originated precisely this way: multiple viruses circulating in pigs exchanged genetic material, ultimately giving rise to a virus capable of human-to-human transmission. This intricate dance of viral exchange underscores the importance of monitoring and understanding these interactions to prevent future pandemics. The insights provided by Cassandra Willyard in MIT’s “THE CHECKUP” shed light on the delicate balance between animal health and human health, emphasizing the need for vigilance in our interconnected world

Recent Outbreaks

Since early 2022, more than 49 million birds in 46 states have been affected by bird flu or were culled due to exposure to infected birds. This outbreak has now surpassed the H5N2 bird flu epidemic in 2015 . This outbreak affected a series of chicken and turkey farming operations in the Midwestern United States leaving more than 43 million birds in 15 states to be destroyed.

Risk Assessment

  • The overall public health risk is considered low.
  • Importantly, there is currently no evidence of person-to-person transmission.

The current options to curb bird flu transmission in cattle are limited. Unlike chickens, culling cattle is challenging due to their higher value. Although cow vaccines for avian influenza do not yet exist, their production would be relatively straightforward. Bird flu has been monitored by public health officials for over two decades. While the virus faces hurdles to becoming human-transmissible, we cannot rule out the possibility entirely. Fortunately, if it were to spread to humans, developing a vaccine would be easier than the process for COVID-19. Existing vaccines against H5N1 are available, and companies are actively working on improved versions. Moderna’s mRNA vaccine technology offers advantages over traditional egg-based production methods, potentially accelerating vaccine development during a bird flu pandemic.

Protective Measures

  • Wild Birds: Avoid direct contact with wild birds, especially if you find any dead birds.
  • Food Safety: It is safe to eat properly cooked poultry in the United States.
  • Travel Recommendations: No travel restrictions related to bird flu are in place.
  • Healthcare Professionals: Clinicians can find guidance on avian influenza on the CDC website.
  • Seasonal Flu Vaccine: While it won’t prevent bird flu, getting your seasonal flu vaccine reduces the risk of simultaneous human and bird flu illness.

Stay Informed

  • Authorities are closely monitoring the situation.
  • Preparedness and vigilance are crucial to prevent further spread.

Remember, while the risk remains low, our collective efforts can protect both human health and our feathered friends. Let’s stay informed and take the necessary precautions!