When It Comes to Bird Flu, 'It's a New War'

Virus emerges in record amounts, and in new places, meaning it may be here to stay
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 16, 2023 9:40 AM CST
Bird Flu Could Be Here to Stay
Healthcare workers in protective gear pass through a disinfection booth before entering a chicken farm during a health alert over a bird flu outbreak in Sacaba, Bolivia, on Jan. 31. Bolivian health authorities reported on Jan. 30 that thousands of birds were culled after an outbreak of bird flu on farms,...   (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Will bird flu lead to the next pandemic? That's the question making the headline rounds of late, and the short answer is—it's possible, though the threat isn't currently high. What is the concern of the moment is that wild birds have spread avian influenza, which is actually made up of multiple flu strains, all around the globe in likely record amounts, meaning it's now a year-round problem for poultry farmers, according to disease experts, veterinarians, and farmers who spoke with Reuters. Previously, farmers' mitigation efforts took place during the spring, when waterfowl such as ducks and geese, which can harbor the virus without dying, would show up during migration season and transmit it to the farmers' poultry. Now, however, bird flu outbreaks are widening in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America, and farmers are having a hard time wrangling with them, suffering record losses.

"It's a new war," says Bret Marsh, Indiana's state veterinarian. "It's basically a 12-month vigil." What seems to have changed is that the circulating H5N1 virus has shifted into a form that's finding its way into a larger number of local wild birds—ie, ones that don't migrate far—than it had before, per David Suarez of Georgia's Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory. Meanwhile, birds that do migrate long distances are also seeing high levels of the virus, and they're carrying it to corners of the globe that previously weren't affected. Some experts are pointing to climate change as a possible contributing factor, noting that global warming could be affecting birds' migratory habits. "We all have to believe in miracles, but I really can't see a scenario where it's going to disappear," says David Stallknecht, who heads up the University of Georgia's Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study.

This development could have a significant impact on our food supply, but what does it mean for a possible spread to humans? After all, the virus has already started to jump from birds to some mammals, including foxes, bears, and seals. In the United States, CNN notes that 17 nonbird species have been infected, in 20 states. And, based on two cases out of Spain and Peru, scientists are alarmed that the virus may have learned to jump from mammal to mammal for the first time ever. Human infections are rare, however, and last week, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the current risk to humans is still "low." He did warn, though, that "we cannot assume that will remain the case and we must prepare for any change in the status quo." (More bird flu stories.)

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