The Hard Facts on Bird Flu in the United States

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One of the more challenging aspects of managing the latest viral outbreak during the global pandemic was the amount of misinformation. It was way too common for certain groups’ fears to get stoked. No matter what side of the aisle you fell on, news media, political leadership, and plenty of social media mavens wanted to ride the coattails of a scary virus.  

The same thing happens with bird flu. Sometimes called avian flu, this scares people because of the potential jump from animal to human that can lead to serious medical concerns. Of course, it doesn’t help that one such instance recently occurred among cows in Texas, Kansas, and Michigan. This is the first time avian flu has been found in dairy cattle, at least according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. 

At the start, I should be extremely clear that contracting avian flu from any source is incredibly rare, especially in the United States. We have so many checks and balances on livestock and animal populations that when a case does crop up, everyone from the USDA to the CDC jumps into action to mitigate the risk of potential outbreaks. The real danger isn’t from the flu found in the animals. It is the possibility of a mutation or spread from birds to other animals and, eventually, humans and pets. 

Here is a quick review of what you may have missed between the sensationalized reports of bird flu. Bird flu is a naturally occurring disease caused by the influenza “A” virus. It is usually spread among wild birds like aquatic birds or waterfowl. It has gotten a little out of control to the tune of 82 million commercial poultry and backyard flocks since early 2022.  

The reason the spread is so dangerous is because this is a relatively “hearty” virus in that it can survive on cold surfaces for much longer than others. This means all that farm equipment around birds can hold the virus for a longer period. 

So, what does all this information mean for you and me? While extremely rare, humans can be infected with a form of bird flu, even if the animals are alive or dead. For example, if a marine biologist interacts with the surface an infected bird was on for an extended period, they could end up being patient zero for a potential outbreak. 

The other challenge is that many predators rely on certain birds prone to avian flu for food. Wild mammals like red foxes, raccoons, skunks, and opossums love to get their hands on waterfowl. However, there have only been two cases where bird flu bumped over to humans. The first was a case back in 2022 in Colorado. In this instance, the person had direct exposure to an infected dead bird. 

In this most recent case in Texas, the person infected was exposed to bird flu because he or she was around dairy cows. You may be wondering how these animals got the flu, but it is most likely related to a contaminated water source or a nearby bird passing away next to where dairy cows graze. 

The good news is that most infections found around the globe are mild in humans. They can range from something as mild as a minor conjunctivitis case in one eye. Picture a worker accidentally rubbing their eyes after cleaning chickens or ducks that are infected. There are more serious concerns related to respiratory infections that can cause serious problems, especially in humans with asthma or other breathing issues. 

To really get the same respiratory tract infection that occurs in birds, humans would have to breathe in a massive amount of exposure to an infected animal. That isn’t likely to happen in even the worst of circumstances. The reason the CDC and USDA control bird flu so much is precisely the dairy cow situation.  

Due to the low temperature, this virus can hang on in ways that don’t ease the fears of medical providers. That is precisely when the virus will quickly develop into something much more dangerous – influenza pneumonia. That dangerous combination is the 7th most common cause of death in the United States. 

If there is one thing the news media does get right, it is that we cannot be lax in our attention to bird flu outbreaks. When it leaps from animal to animal and, eventually, humans, it mutates. While there is supportive care, some medications, and a few potential vaccines, the mass proliferation of the virus once in humans may get out of hand. This would lead to similar uncertainty during Covid or the fears of outbreaks related to swine flu in the past. 

The best way to ensure such a scary situation never happens is the comprehensive and unified attention paid to bird flu. Everyone from CDC viral outbreak specialists to the standards and testing teams at the USDA need to be on the same page. The earlier we can point out and recognize serious outbreaks, the less likely they are to mutate and cause concern for the general public.  

If anything, the news in Texas should reassure some readers. It shows that our systems work, and we were able to identify the potential outbreak much sooner than necessary. The appropriate government officials were brought in to manage the infected dairy cows and trace the origin of the infection to ensure no future spread. 

While a comprehensive approach seems best, we equally must keep an awareness of infection over time. Asking leaders and agencies to assess if the virus is spreading faster than in the past or making the jump to humans is crucial to our prevention, understanding, and management of such a fickle and potentially dangerous infection. 

 

Written by: Emmanuel J. Osemota 


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