The New Avian Flu and How to Beat It

The recent outbreak of the avian virus in bird flocks and poultry farms have raised concerns due to their rapid increase in transmission, yet with information taken away from past cases, it can be dealt with more effectively than before.

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As COVID-19 cases are declining, another concern has recently arisen in America: the avian flu. Though a case has not yet been documented in humans, the increase in cases amongst poultry still poses a considerable threat, as animal food is one of the main sources of protein in an American’s diet. In extreme cases, the virus can be contracted by a human after undergoing many mutations in the form of the Asian Influenza A (H5N1) virus. In sporadic outbreaks such as those we have seen recently, it is important to look at past outbreaks and recognize important findings and mistakes in order to respond quickly and effectively in the present.

The avian flu, caused by the Influenza type A virus responsible for influenza in humans, is a highly contagious respiratory illness. It occurs naturally in wild waterfowl around the world and can infect domestic poultry. The virus can also be found in other animal species such as pigs, dogs, and cats. Symptoms of the avian flu in birds include lack of energy, loss of appetite and coordination, swelling, and reduced production of eggs. In rare occasions where humans are infected with avian flu (by coming into contact with infected birds or animals), the symptoms resemble human seasonal influenza as well as pneumonia and abdominal pain.

The situation that many farms are facing in America involves the widespread infection of a certain mutant of the avian flu called the Eurasian H5N1, which originated from a chicken farm in Delaware. This farm, in particular, is a commercial farm home to one of the country’s largest concentrations of poultry, which would mean many other farms around the country could have had contact with their supply. Since then, more outbreaks have been detected in flocks in Iowa, Nebraska, and Massachusetts, and, according to the World Organization for Animal Health, more than 40 countries have experienced new cases of the avian flu in the past six months. Some zoos, such as the Detroit Zoo in Michigan, have taken further precautions to protect birds from the virus.

Though it may not pose a significant danger to humans yet, this form of the avian flu virus has been found to be closely related to the highly contagious Asian Avian Influenza A (H5N1) virus, which has been infecting people since 2003. Despite their rare occurrences, human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when enough virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth, or is inhaled. In fact, in 2003, H5N1 first appeared in a widespread outbreak that originated in Asia and then spread to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Starting out in livestock, the virus was transmitted to humans, which resulted in 18 reported infections, 13 of them lethal. This demonstrates the danger of how transmissible the avian flu is, especially due to the presence of long-distance migratory bird species. In this way, experts are concerned about the virus’s quick growth, which increases the possibility of the virus mutating into variants that would be deadlier to humans.

Other than the importance of the development in technology and medicine, an important tool recognized by scientists in dealing with new diseases and conditions is past reports of similar cases and diagnoses. Novel outbreaks such as the avian influenza outbreak in 2003 share a similar characteristic to other outbreaks: lack of preparedness. This can be in the form of a slow federal response, withholding medical information, or the lack of public knowledge in how to deal with the issue. For the avian flu, though, we have a significant amount of research to prepare with. For instance, scientists could analyze the devastating consequences of the avian flu in the 2014 outbreak, which sent poultry and egg prices soaring and cost the industry over $3 billion. Along with the economic effects, the outbreak also caused the deaths of 50 million birds. Regarding humans contracting the virus, in 2003 in the Netherlands, two infected poultry workers transmitted the H7N7 virus subtype of the avian influenza virus to three family members who all got conjunctivitis.

From these past cases, organizations such as the Center for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have been able to implement regulations in order to inform and advise the public on what steps to take to protect themselves and farm animals from contracting the virus. For example, the requirements of OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment standards call for the use of gloves and eye, face, and respiratory protection for workers prone to catching the avian flu, like poultry workers. OSHA also advises poultry workers to keep poultry flocks isolated from wild animals and bird populations and to provide clean and adequate ventilation to poultry houses in order to limit the possibility of transmitting the virus. To protect ourselves from the rare occasion in which we may catch the virus, it is advised to receive the seasonal influenza vaccine yearly.

Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic which dealt with a novel virus and a lack of past references, we have the advantage of looking at the past for guidance when dealing with the avian flu. The recent outbreak of avian flu across the country has become a concerning issue, but with the help of what we learned in past cases of this virus and the influx of resources that are readily available to us today, we can handle this outbreak with more efficacy than ever before.