What Do You Know About Bird Flu?

H5N1 virus has pandemic potential since most humans have no immunity to it

Bird flying in the sun setting sky

When people think of the flu season, they seldom know that the ‘bird flu’ is different, and sometimes it’s a killer.

Unlike the seasonal flu, bird flu does not easily infect humans or spread from one person to another. However, there have been sporadic human infections over the years.

Most health experts agree that the next pandemic could arrive on the wings of an infected bird.

The bird flu is very serious, and deadly, since most humans have no immunity to it.

The greatest flu pandemic in human history in 1919 killed up to 100 million people and was believed to be bird flu-related.

Approximately 60 percent of reported infections lead to death, frequently from acute respiratory distress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The avian influenza viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds and can infect domestic poultry and animal species. There are several strains of avian influenza Type A virus, according to the (CDC).

During 2016, several pathogenic strains of the bird flu forced hundreds of thousands of ducks, chickens, and turkeys to be euthanized to prevent the viruses from spreading.

What the rapidly mutating pathogen will do this year is still anyone's guess, but epidemiologists are on high alert.

"Bird flu is our number one, two, and three priority," says Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"For both birds and humans."

In very rare cases, the virus can also pass from humans to other humans.

According to the CDC, it is thought to have happened only in a handful of cases, almost all of which resulted from very close contact between an infected person and a caregiver.

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In September 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released an EMPRES Watch animal health warning of the likely westward and southerly spread of H5N8 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus during the northern hemisphere autumn and winter of 2016–2017.

Where is bird flu spreading now?

The WHO has reported Hungary, Poland, Germany, Croatia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Croatia, and Switzerland all officially reported bird flu outbreaks during 2017.

This flu strain is not the same deadly virus as the China H7N9 virus that had impacted poultry and infected humans in Asia in 2013. 

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5 infections have been reported in U.S. backyard and commercial flocks, captive wild birds, and wild birds. 

In March, 2017, the USDA last confirmed several cases of HPAI H5 in the Pacific, Central, and Mississippi area. Small bird flu cases have been reported in NY and Tennessee.

There haven’t been any infections in humans so far.

To prevent a bird flu outbreak in the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first Influenza A (H5N1) Virus Monovalent Vaccine, Adjuvanted, in 2013.  

The egg-based manufacturing process vaccine is administered as a two-dose regimen, 21 days apart, via intramuscular injection. It is manufactured by ID Biomedical Corporation of Quebec, a subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals.

But, this vaccine will not be commercially available.

It has been purchased by the federal government for inclusion within the U.S. government’s National Stockpile for distribution by public health officials, if needed.

“This vaccine could be used in the event that the H5N1 avian influenza virus develops the capability to spread efficiently from human to human, resulting in the rapid spread of disease across the globe,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

“Vaccines are critical to protecting public health by helping to counter the transmission of influenza disease during a pandemic,” said Dr. Midthun.