Could H5N1 Bird Flu Become the Next Pandemic? -TravelBug Health

Could H5N1 Bird Flu Be the Next Pandemic?

No one will soon forget the recent COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted world travel, upended economies, and caused the deaths of millions. Now, another virus, H5N1 Bird Flu, is becoming a concern due to its high mortality rate in humans. Known as avian influenza, H5N1 primarily affects birds but has sporadically infected humans, raising concerns about its pandemic potential. Could H5N1 Bird Flu Be the Next Pandemic? Join the TravelBug as we explore the history and nature of flu pandemics and examine the threat level of the current bird flu outbreak.

How Common is the Flu?

Influenza, or the flu, remains the most common vaccine-preventable disease in the world. On average, an estimated 1 billion people worldwide are infected with the flu each year. Millions experience severe illness, and the global death toll from seasonal influenza-related respiratory diseases ranges between 290,000 and 650,000 annually.

What Causes the Flu?

The common flu, or influenza, is caused by influenza viruses. These viruses are highly contagious and can spread through airborne transmission or close contact between people. We are most familiar with the strains that affect humans every flu season.

What Makes the Flu Dangerous?

The seriousness of a flu virus mainly depends on two characteristics:

  1. Contagiousness – how easily it spreads from person to person.
  2. Virulence – how likely it is to cause severe illness or death.

Scientists constantly monitor the genetic makeup of flu viruses because they regularly mutate, which can make them more (or less) contagious or virulent.

Can Influenza Cause a Pandemic Like COVID-19?

Yes, it potentially can. Occasionally, a new mutation of the virus can evolve into a novel (new) strain. This can pose an increased risk to the general population, which may lack immunity from prior exposure or infection. If a novel strain is contagious enough, it can result in a pandemic, which is characterized by the global spread of human-to-human transmission.

How Serious is an Influenza Pandemic?

One of the worst flu pandemics in modern history was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. It infected up to one-third of the world’s population and killed an estimated 50-100 million people, far more than those who died in the First World War that had just ended.

A more recent influenza pandemic was the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak, which spread worldwide and was particularly deadly as it targeted young, healthy people instead of the very young or elderly.

What is H5N1 Bird Flu?

The influenza virus can infect species other than humans. Wild birds, especially waterfowl like ducks and geese, are natural reservoirs for influenza viruses. Influenza in birds is called avian influenza, often known as “bird flu.” Domestic poultry such as chickens and turkeys are also highly susceptible. Scientists routinely monitor bird populations for evidence of new influenza strains.

H5N1 is a subtype of the influenza virus which was first identified in 2003 and causes highly infectious, severe respiratory disease in birds. Since 2022, several outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu have killed millions of birds worldwide.

Recently, the same avian flu has devastated populations of certain mammals. Along the coasts of North and South America, avian flu has killed tens of thousands of marine mammals, mostly sea lions, leaving beaches littered with carcasses. Since March 2024, bird flu has also been detected in herds of dairy cattle, particularly in Texas and Kansas, and their milk. As of this writing, H5N1 bird flu has affected 126 dairy cattle herds in 12 states.

Is Bird Flu Dangerous to Humans?

Yes, but not commonly. The H5N1 virus primarily infects animals, but nearly 900 human infections have been reported since 2003. What concerns public health specialists is that about 60% of H5N1 infections in humans were fatal, making it one of the deadliest viral infections in humans. People who work closely with animals, such as dairy and poultry workers, are at the highest risk. Since April 2024, three dairy workers have been infected with H5N1, exhibiting only minor, non-life-threatening symptoms.

Could H5N1 Bird Flu Be the Next Pandemic Like COVID-19?

The likelihood of H5N1 bird flu becoming a human pandemic is a concern among epidemiologists but is currently considered relatively low. Most human cases have been linked to direct contact with infected birds, and there has not been sustained human-to-human transmission, which is necessary for a pandemic. With the global chicken population around 34 billion (compared to 8 billion humans), the risk remains significant.

Pigs are known carriers of both human and avian influenza and present a good mixing vessel for the viruses to mutate by exchanging genetic material. As more bird populations become infected, the risk of transmission to mammals, including humans, increases.

What is Being Done to Prepare for a Possible H5N1 Bird Flu Pandemic?

Health experts worldwide have monitored H5N1 closely for years due to its potential to mutate and spread more easily among humans. While no H5N1 vaccine is commercially available to the public, several million doses are in the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile. Vaccine manufacturers have several vaccine candidates ready to ramp up manufacturing if necessary.

Is There a Treatment Available for H5N1 Bird Flu?

There is no medication to eliminate the virus, but antiviral medications, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), can reduce the severity of the infection. These are also kept in the Strategic National Stockpile.

What Can I Do to Prevent Getting H5N1 Bird Flu?

The CDC recommends avoiding direct contact with sick or dead birds, poultry, or other animals, including wild or domesticated animals. You should also avoid consuming raw dairy products (including unpasteurized milk) or undercooked meat from potentially infected herds.

Where Can I Find More Information About H5N1?

To stay updated with information about the global status of Avian Influenza, always consult reputable health organizations, and stay tuned to TravelBug Health. We are committed to keeping you informed about emerging diseases and health concerns around the world.

Enjoy your summer, always travel safe, and “don’t mess with chickens”.

–  The TravelBug