A deadly respiratory virus is killed millions and has officials trying different measures, including lockdowns, to get it under control. The virus keeps mutating and is spreading asymptomatically. While this may sound like the haunting of Covid-19, it is, in fact, the worst avian flu outbreak in history.
We may have noticed a lack of eggs on supermarket shelves or high egg prices, but the reality is far grimmer than this mild inconvenience. The world is currently grappling with the largest avian flu outbreak in history, with over 140 million culled farmed birds since October 2021. In the United Kingdom alone, more than 4 million domesticated birds have been culled and an estimated 50,000 wild birds have died. The real figure of wild bird deaths is likely to be far higher than this; given that on an island with vast swathes of seabirds like the UK, the majority die at sea and their carcasses are never found. There are fears that the UK’s world-renowned seabird populations could be irreversibly damaged. Since 1986, the local population of breeding seabirds has fallen by almost a quarter, and they are already under immense pressure from overfishing, loss of habitat, and climate change.
Unfortunately, it is not just birds that have been subjected to this virus. Avian flu (or ‘bird flu’) has been dubbed a ‘spillover event’ and has affected many mammals including otters, foxes, domesticated cats, and sea lions.
Seabirds are international travellers, meaning that once they come in contact with the virus from the epicentre of the UK, they then spread it across the globe.
Stretching 2,500 kilometres, the Peruvian coastline is home to one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. The avian flu outbreak, however, has decimated local populations of sea lions, with 3,500 bodies found on their beaches in the last few months. At a farm in Spain, over 50,000 minks were euthanised after coming into contact with infected wild birds. This outbreak was a significant moment as it is believed that the avian influenza virus can also spread from mink to mink, indicating mammal-to-mammal spread, thus raising fears that humans could be more vulnerable.
In February 2023, an 11-year-old Cambodian girl was the first to die from this H5N1 strain of avian flu, with her father also testing positive for the virus. The first known human cases of H5N1 were recorded in 1997 in Hong Kong and China: 18 people were infected through contact with infected birds, and 6 died. It is thought to have originated from a commercial geese farm in South China in 1996. Since then, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that there have been 860 human infections across 90 countries, of which 53% have died.
With Covid-19 having a fatality rate of around 1-2%, the high mortality rate of avian influenza is hugely alarming. However, this new strain of H5N1 sweeping the globe has been classified as ‘low risk’ as the genetic modification it would require to move between humans is quite substantial. Reassuringly, H5N1 has been around since 1996 and this specific genetic mutation has not yet happened.
How Do We Stop the Outbreak?
When faced with such a widespread and complex issue, solutions can be difficult.
Experts have discussed the possibilities of vaccines, for both humans and domesticated birds. With the latter, different countries have different practices when it comes to vaccinating poultry.
China vaccinates their birds routinely as bird flu is endemic there, whereas birds in the UK and US are vaccinated very rarely as they do not normally have highly pathogenic avian influenza. This, however, might change soon.
France recently announced it will start vaccinating its farmed birds from September 2023, and Ecuador has also ordered two million vaccines. With humans, three major vaccine manufacturers – GSK, Moderna, and CSL Seqirus – say they can make hundreds of millions of bird flu shots for humans available if the H5N1 influenza virus ever makes the jump to infecting people on a large scale, but it is hoped that this will not be the case.
It is a well-known fact that the human exploitation of animals for food, clothing, and entertainment provides the perfect opportunity for viruses like this to emerge. The most recent example of this is Covid-19, which originated in a wild animal market. And before that, HIV also made the leap to humans after bush hunters ate ape meat in the early 1900s.
The overarching solution to avoid outbreaks like this would be to move away from intensive farming practices or wild animal trades in markets. As a consumer, we also have the power to influence the industry. If we opt not to eat chicken or consume eggs, we contribute to removing farmed birds from the equation and thus drastically reducing the chances of such avian influenza outbreaks occurring in the future.
With the planet in such a fragile state already, having these kinds of viruses ripping through our wild bird populations can have severe conservation implications.
Featured image: Raw Pixel
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