Bird flu toll rises sparking concerns of a new pandemic: 'We need to be concerned'

The virus has spread to mammals and experts are monitoring its likely impact on humans.

Avian influenza has spread to mammals from birds resulting in nervous discussion about a new pandemic.

The animal toll is rising with millions of birds dead, and 17 mammal species impacted. The United States is experiencing its worst-ever outbreak where it has infected over 58 million birds.

Should the outbreak worsen it could impact humans by interrupting food supplies, particularly eggs and chicken meat. As viruses are commonly transferred between poultry and pigs, bacon could be next. But could H5N1, a strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), infect large numbers of people?

Left - bare supermarket shelves. Right - lines of trolleys and people in PPE
If the avian influenza outbreak was to worsen there could be global food supply issues. Source: Getty (File)

Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at Australian National University and Canberra Hospital, thinks unease about the spread of H5N1 is warranted, but it's not time to panic.

"I think we need to be concerned and monitor what's going on," he told Yahoo News Australia. "But I don't think we need to have a view that the world will end tomorrow because this is going to be worse than Covid-19."

Will avian flu spread to humans?

H5N1 was first detected in domestic fowl in Southern China in 1996 and was transmitted to humans that same year. By 2005 it had spread to migratory birds, carrying it to other continents.

  • 1996 outbreak eventually caused 860 human infections and 454 deaths

  • Since 2003, there have been 240 human infections and 135 deaths in the Western Pacific Region.

Last week World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the the risk to humans remains low. “But we cannot assume that will remain the case. And we must prepare for any change in the status quo,” he added.

What animals have been impacted?

While H5N1 has been present for over 20 years there hasn't been a major outbreak in mammals. So, its recent spread into intensively farmed minks in Spain and wild dolphins and sea lions in Peru has some experts concerned.

Dead birds being buried at beaches in Peru by people in PPE.
Dead birds were buried at beaches in Peru in December. The country later confirmed mammals were also infected. Source: Getty

In the United Kingdom it's been found in otters and foxes. Signage in some parks warns against feeding birds like swans and urges dog walkers to tether their animals.

Is H5N1 in Australia?

H5N1 has never been detected in Australia. However, strains of HPAI virus have occurred, with the last major outbreak in 2020 causing significant losses to the Victorian poultry industry. The government warns the HPAI would most likely be spread to the country between September and November when large numbers of birds migrate from overseas.

What can we do to stop the spread?

Free-range farmed chickens are more likely to come into contact with wild birds, making them more likely to be exposed to disease. But in high-density cage and shed-farmed systems viruses can spread and mutate faster.

Animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming has called on the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to urgently reform the poultry sector to help prevent zoonotic viruses developing. “To stand a chance of curbing this crisis we have to learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic,” CEO Philip Lymbery said.

University of Leeds Dr Alastair Ward suggested farms enact sensible biosecurity measures including avoiding contact with wild animals, wearing PPE and washing hands with soap and water.

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