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Bird Flu: The Next Pandemic?

A chicken afraid of bird flu in America

For the most part, the world has moved on from the COVID pandemic, with vaccines readily available and testing kits much harder to find. Another pandemic isn’t something anyone wants to think about but given the impact of COVID on the entire population, monitoring new developments potentially leading to another virus outbreak is important. With this in mind, the most recent concern about another global infection involves the avian flu, formally known as the H5N1 bird flu. As it turns out, there have been more than a few cases of bird flu in America as well as other countries. And should this virus evolve to become more contagious, we might well be dealing with a new pandemic challenge.

a chicken wearing a face mask just to be safe
No one wants to catch the bird flu. Not even the chickens.

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This news isn’t meant to cause tremendous alarm or to trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress. But it does highlight the importance of surveillance and preparation should the world face another serious infectious threat. At present, most countries have yet to recover from the last pandemic or replenish healthcare stockpiles. Advances in vaccine development, though improved, would again take time to scale any reasonable response to another virus type. This is why monitoring the H5N1 bird flu now in its current state is so important. Should evidence show that bird flu in America is increasing steadily, aggressive actions will need to be taken. Of course, whether populations choose to comply with needed actions in the aftermath of COVID remains questionable.

Updates on the H5N1 Bird Flu

In recent months, new developments regarding the H5N1 bird flu have been cause for concern. Since April of this year, a total of three farm workers have contacted the avian flu. The first two workers were in Michigan with neither having serious symptoms. However, the third had a more protracted case of the virus along with respiratory symptoms. Cough, teary eyes, and a sore throat were symptoms described, which could indicate a greater potential for viral spread. Prior to this, the occurrence of bird flu in America has been quite rare. Likewise, most cases are mild and rarely cause serious problems. However, given the capacity for the influenza virus to mutate and evolve, this could change rather quickly. This is why the CDC as well as the Department of Agriculture are monitoring these developments closely.

These new cases of the H5N1 bird flu in the U.S. aren’t the only new developments related to this infection. The first death from the avian flu recently occurred in Mexico according to the World Health Organization. After developing fever, shortness of breath, and gastrointestinal symptoms, the patient succumbed to the virus over weeks. Likewise, there are reports that dozens of dairy cows in multiple states have either died or been slaughtered due to the H5N1 bird flu. States included not only Michigan but also Ohia, Colorado, South Carolina, and Texas. Given that slaughtering cattle is costly, and few typically die from avian flu, this also raises concern. These are the indicators that shifts in the bird flu in America are occurring.

a dude dealing with bird flu in America
Right now, there isn’t much bird flu in America–but we all know how that could change.

The Potential for Mutation

While the number of human cases currently may not seem too alarming, there is some cause for concern. Recent studies have shown that the H5N1 bird flu can move between species. In June of last year, over 24,000 seal pups were killed by the avian flu in South America. The notable aspect of this was that these seals were spread out in different regions. The event represented the first transnational mammal-to-mammal transmission of the avian flu. In addition, research in mice have also demonstrated that they can contract the virus after drinking contaminated milk. And pasteurization did not necessarily eliminate the virus in the milk either. These developments between species and new routes of infection exposure suggest the bird flu in America could adapt over time.

By far, the most worrisome transmission route would be through dairy cattle. Since dairy cattle represent a common mammal to contract the H5N1 bird flu, they reflect a key viral reservoir. And since human beings are commonly exposed to cattle via milk, meat, or direct contact, this could be a means of infection. This is why the farm workers who recently developed the bird flu in America are being followed closely. According to experts, a bigger risk is if someone should contract the H5N1 bird flu along with a human influenza virus. Thes two strains of influenza virus could share genetic information making them more contagious in humans. The same thing could also occur if someone developed a chronic infection with the virus allowing it longer time to adapt. To date, this has not yet happened. But with reports of interspecies spread and human cases, this could happen sooner rather than later.

A Reason to Monitor and Prepare, Not Panic

some H5N1 bird flu in a test tube
The H5N1 bird flu isn’t a big problem… yet.

After dealing with prolonged lockdowns, supply chain debacles, and life turned upside down, no one wants to think about a pandemic. In many ways the pandemic accelerated new trends present today. But at the same time, millions of lives were lost, and the challenges for many from a mental health perspective were real. Regardless, this doesn’t mean ignoring current signs about the H5N1 bird flu is justified. The best way to prevent devastation from a pandemic is to monitor its potential and prepare for its return as best as possible. The bird flu in America is far from being an endemic much less an epidemic. But there are signs that this virus could become a growing threat in time.

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Understanding this, healthcare organizations, surveillance teams, and vaccine developers need to stay abreast of latest developments. Not only do mitigation efforts often work much better but they tend to be much less costly. And they tend to save human lives in the process. No matter whether the H5N1 bird flu becomes the next pandemic or not, it deserves our attention. Being proactive in case the bird flu in America evolves offers the best strategy at present. Though thinking about the next pandemic might be unpalatable, it remains something that must be considered.

 

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