What You Need to Know About H5N1 Avian Influenza aka The Bird Flu
Since last month, 18 states have reported positive cases of H5N1 bird flu, and Nebraska has canceled auctions and fairs through May 1. The latest strain has not infected any humans yet, but officials remain diligent in monitoring its spread as the virus mutates.
Bird flu virus can be contracted by humans if the virus gets into your eyes, nose, or mouth. Symptoms of the virus are similar to symptoms of other strains of the flu and can range from mild respiratory symptoms and eye infection to pneumonia.
The CDC believes the risk to the public is low. The larger concern is for the poultry industry and rising prices. This is the largest bird flu outbreak since 2015, and has devastated farms on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
What is The H5N1 Avian Influenza
Avian influenza Type A viruses (bird flu viruses) are present in birds worldwide. Recently H5N1 bird flu virus infections have been identified in Northern pintail ducks. This type of influenza is extremely contagious (and often fatal) among birds and is spread through saliva, mucus, and feces. This virus can be spread by coming in contact with an infected bird or a contaminated surface.
Risks Associated with H5N1
Bird flu viruses do not usually infect people, but occasional human infection is not surprising. Currently, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission of this outbreak. Bird flu cases in humans most commonly occur in people who have close contact with birds and their families.
Nonetheless, influenza viruses mutate quickly. So it is possible that this H5N1 virus mutates or mixes with other strains of the flu in a way that may pose a risk to humans.
While human infection is rare, it is possible to become infected if you inhale viral material. This flu requires a nasal or oral swab test for diagnosis and if a human contracts the bird flu, it can be treated with neuraminidase inhibitor medication. The mortality rate for infected humans is high - approximately 60 percent.
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What Experts are Saying
Since there is no evidence that the individual who has the H5N1 virus has spread it to any other humans, many experts believe the current risk remains low. However, farms across the US are ramping up biosecurity measures by quarantining facilities. Some experts are saying there might be an explosion of cases in the coming weeks.
The main concerns for people seem to be the possible mutation of the H5N1 virus to make it more transmissible from human to human as well as the possibility of the H5N1 mixing with a human flu virus. The mixing of the H5N1 virus and the human flu could occur if an individual is infected with both H5N1 and the human flu and the viruses exchange genetic material.
Bird Flu Vs. COVID-19
The rise of bird flu cases has caused concern for many people, as the COVID-19 pandemic was likely caused by viral transmission from an animal to a human. However, there are some important differences to note between avian influenza and COVID-19.
The main difference between Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the bird flu is how they are transmitted. While COVID-19 is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets, there is no current evidence that H5N1 can be spread from another person.
Overall, while strains of the bird flu have higher mortality rates than COVID-19, they are less transmissible and easier to isolate. In the chart below we break down some of the key differences between COVID-19 and three avian influenza strains.
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Differences between COVID-19 and Bird Flu
|Number of Human Cases|
|How it Spreads||Mostly through respiratory droplets expelled during breathing, coughing, or talking||Likely through contact with infected poultry||Contact with infected sick or dead poultry||Contact with infected poultry|
|Human to Human Transmission||Yes||No cases reported||Uncommon||Uncommon|
|Origins||Likely originated in a bat, passed to an unknown intermediate animal, and then transmitted to humans||Birds||Birds||Birds|
The avian flu has been detected in birds across the US. There is currently no evidence that this virus is able to spread between humans, but researchers are currently monitoring the situation. By analyzing the impact of other avian flus, such as H10N3 and H7N9, we can see that avian flus typically have high mortality rates but do not spread easily from person to person.
Even though the risk of contracting the avian flu is currently low, if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, such as a fever, fatigue, and chills, you should seek medical attention. A membership with Mira can help you access low-cost urgent care visits, prescriptions, and lab tests to get the care you need. Sign up today to get started.
Jacqueline graduated from the University of Virginia in 2021 with a B.A. in Global Public Health and is a current M.D. candidate at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Jacqueline has been working for Mira since April 2020 and is passionate about the intersection of public health and medical care.