The H5N1 avian influenza outbreak that began in 2021 has become the largest bird flu outbreak in history in the US and around the world. In the US, the virus has killed millions of chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese and thousands of wild birds from this outbreak. Many virologists are concerned that this virus may spread to humans and cause a new human pandemic. University of Colorado Boulder virologists Sarah Sawyer, Emma Worden-Sapper and Sharon Wu summarize the H5N1 outbreak that scientists are worried about.
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1) Is this virus a serious threat to humans?
H5N1, a different type of influenza virus that circulates mainly in birds, was first detected in 1996 on a goose farm in China. Recently it has started infecting a diversity of bird and mammal species around the world.
The virus is a virulent pathogen to birds, meaning that infections often cause very few symptoms, but its effect on humans is complex.
The good news about H5N1 for humans is that it currently does not spread much between people. Most people who have been infected with H5N1 have been exposed directly to infected poultry, especially chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, which are often raised in large commercial farms.
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There have been only a handful of examples of human-to-human spread, and because direct infection of humans by infected birds is still rare, H5N1 has not yet emerged as a human pandemic.
2) Why is there suddenly so much attention being paid to this outbreak?
The first reason bird flu is getting so much attention right now is that H5N1 is currently causing the largest “bird pandemic” ever recorded. A viral variant H5N1 220.127.116.11b that originated in 2020 is the cause.
If some birds test positive for H5N1, the entire flock is culled, regardless of symptoms or infection status. US This is the reason behind the increase in the price of eggs and poultry meat. The Biden Administration is considering vaccinating farm poultry flocks.
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Another reason for the increased attention is that H5N1 is now infecting more bird and mammal species than ever before. The virus has been detected in wild birds, including badgers, bears, bobcats, coyotes, ferrets, fisher cats, foxes, leopards, opossums, pigs, skunks, and sea lions.
As H5N1 infects more species, it also expands its geographic range and produces more virulent variants that may have new biological properties.
Sea lions in Peru are also falling prey to the H5N1 virus in large numbers. It has not been confirmed whether sea lions are spreading the virus to each other or through birds or H5N1-infected water.
Cause for concern: If H5N1 can spread to mink and possibly sea lions, why not humans? We are also mammals.
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