The increasing number of zoonotic diseases, such as monkeypox and COVID-19 has been a cause for concern among scientists. The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged the international community to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic caused by the avian flu strain H1N5. This follows the discovery of the bird flu strain in mammals such as otters, minks, and foxes, which suggests it could soon be found in humans.
The H1N5 virus, which has historically been found in poultry, is now increasingly infecting migratory birds, allowing it to spread more easily, even to various mammals. The United States Department of Agriculture has identified the avian influenza A virus in skunks, bears, a raccoon, and a red fox.
To protect yourself and those around you, it’s important to understand what H5N1 bird flu is and the dangers this virus poses. Let’s look at the facts about the H5N1 virus so you can stay informed and safe.
What is the H5N1 bird flu?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bird flu is caused by infection of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1) virus in wild birds and commercial poultry.
The virus can cause severe respiratory disease and death in birds. In addition, the virus has been known to jump from birds to other animals as well as humans. WHO noted that it is not uncommon for sporadic human cases to occur due to exposure to poultry or contaminated environments.
WHO has recorded a frighteningly high human death rate linked to avian influenza H5N1. In China, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam alone, hundreds of cases were reported with more than 240 cases. Of those reported to be infected with the influenza A H5N1 virus, over half tragically lost their lives.
Data from WHO also reveals more than 870 cases of human infection reported from January 2003 to January 2023, along with at least 450 deaths globally. With more than 50% fatality rate, the H5N1 avian flu is one of the most dangerous threats in the world today.
The first case of the current bird flu outbreak in the United States was reported in January 2022 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of February 1, the CDC reported cases in birds in every state with over 58 million poultry birds and 6,000 wild birds affected and one case of human infection.
Bird flu transmission between animals and humans
According to the CDC, H1N5 avian influenza A virus may be transmitted from infected birds to other animals, and potentially to humans, in two main ways:
- Directly from infected birds or from avian influenza A virus-contaminated environments.
- Through an intermediate host, such as another animal.
Bird flu infection can be acquired directly by ingestion of saliva, mucus, or feces from an infected bird. Although human infection with bird flu is rare, infection can still occur when the virus is inhaled or gets into a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth. Those with prolonged and unprotected contact around contaminated areas or places are at a higher risk of infection.
The pandemic potential of bird flu
The H5N1 virus is highly contagious among birds, and can spread quickly across entire flocks by contact with infected birds or their feces. As the virus continues to evolve and move from migratory birds to different animal hosts, including mammals, its potential for influenza pandemic increases.
WHO has also issued a warning that bird flu could become a flu pandemic if it mutates into a form that is easily transmitted from person to person. In such an event, the virus infections could quickly spread to millions of people and cause widespread illness and death.
Avian flu symptoms in humans
The bird flu virus can cause mild to severe symptoms in humans, like:
- Eye redness
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Shortness of breath
Other symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. H5N1 can also cause severe respiratory illness, pneumonia, and organ failure.
How to protect yourself and your loved ones from bird flu
Despite H5N1 being a potentially life-threatening virus, The New York Times reported that there are several vaccines that have already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with proven safety and efficacy levels to combat it. Unfortunately though, America’s vaccine stockpile on hand would be nowhere near enough in case of a serious outbreak.
Here are some precautions you can take to protect yourself and your family from infection.
Avoid sources of exposure
According to the CDC, the best way to prevent contracting bird flu is to steer clear of sources that may transmit the virus. Birds who have been infected expel bird flu virus through saliva, mucous and feces – any airborne droplets or dust particles containing these contaminants can lead to human infection if breathed in. Even something as simple as touching a contaminated surface then your mouth, eyes or nose could be enough for transmission.
Use protective equipment
If you must come into contact with birds, it’s important to use protective gear, such as gloves, N95 masks and goggles. It is also necessary to wear disposable clothing and foot coverings when visiting any areas where there may be infected birds or their droppings.
Wash your hands with soap and water
One of the most important precautions to take against bird flu is frequent handwashing with soap and water. You should also avoid touching your face, nose or mouth before washing your hands as these are easy entry points for the virus.
Get flu shots for yourself and your family
Getting regular flu shots is important for both prevention and early detection of the virus. The CDC recommends that everyone aged 6 months or older get an annual seasonal flu vaccine, which protects against a variety of influenza viruses including avian influenza viruses. This can help reduce overall flu-related illness in people.
Avoid eating undercooked poultry
To reduce the risk of bird flu transmission through undercooked poultry, it is important to follow food safety guidelines. Make sure all poultry and eggs are cooked thoroughly before consuming them. Additionally, it’s best to not eat any raw or undercooked eggs and meat from wild birds.
Don’t let bird flu get to you
One of the most effective measures against bird flu is to get annual flu shots and seasonal flu vaccines at a Nao Medical near you. Getting vaccinated can boost your immunity system, reducing your chances of catching the virus from outside sources.