The form of the flu virus that’s cutting a swatch through the feathered populace is the H5N1 virus. Infected birds spread this flu in their saliva, by contact, and in their droppings. When a person gets enough droplets of this flu—often by getting it on their hands and spreading it to their mouth or eyes—it can readily infect them with the strain that’s moving around in birds. A number of people have been infected this year through that bird-to-human route.
At the moment, fortunately, there is no version of the current strain of avian flu that has been known to be spreading person-to-person. However, it’s entirely possible for this to happen should the virus pick up necessary mutations, as happened with both the SARS and SARS-CoV-2 viruses in moving from animal hosts.
Limiting the possibility of a human-to-human version of the current avian flu, which could possibly set off yet another pandemic, is best achieved by limiting the number of humans infected by the bird-to-human route. And that’s best achieved by avoiding contact with infected birds. Which birds might be infected? Any of them, though the course of the disease in birds is generally so rapid that the period of time in which domestic fowl are infected, but not showing obvious symptoms (like dying) is brief. In any case, any interaction with a number of wild or domestic birds at this time should be treated as if entering a “hot zone,” complete with mask, gloves, and post-contact clean-up procedures.
While the “hot house” conditions of caged poultry weaken those animals and make them highly susceptible to any infection, farms that are attempting to be better stewards of their animals are also at risk. Chickens, turkeys, and ducks allowed to wander in “free range” operations have been wiped out when flocks of wild geese flew in to share in their food or water.
Some people have become so concerned about the possibility of avian flu that they’ve taken down their bird feeders. However, for the most part, songbirds, woodpeckers, and other birds that frequent feeders are considered of low concern. It’s mostly waterfowl and shorebirds that are considered to be likely carriers. That said, wash your hands after handling a feeder or other surfaces frequented by wild birds.
Mother Jones has a heartbreaking article up at the moment looking at how this flu can affect birds of all types.
In the summer of 2022, gannets and skuas on Scotland’s remote isles started behaving oddly. They walked in circles as if intoxicated. Their heads swelled. They dragged their limp wings at their sides, feathers grazing the ground. At a time when they should have been breeding and raising new life, they were dying. Scientists and birdwatchers had a front-row seat to an ecological disaster. More than two-thirds of the world’s gannets and great skuas—birds that migrate across the Atlantic Ocean from eastern North America to western Europe—are feared to have been lost.
That’s two-thirds of some ecologically vital and aesthetically majestic species lost this last year to a single disease.
Just as the virus can make the jump from domestic birds to humans, it can also make the jump between infected wild birds and the species that prey on them. That doesn’t just include birds like eagles and hawks, but mammals like foxes. Other species, such as pelicans and seals, who live in the areas where these sea birds gather in large numbers, have also become infected.
All of this is tragic, but it’s also highly unusual. Flu is endemic among birds. It generally only makes them mildly ill. That’s true of the H5N1 strain as well as other forms of Influenza A. One of the big reasons that the term “bird flu” seems to pop up as a concern every few years is that birds don’t die from a flu infection. Instead, they get the bird equivalent of a snotty nose, then hang around, forming a reservoir of potential infection that can make that jump to humans.
Only this time, this particular variant of H5N1 (H5N1-HPAI-clade 18.104.22.168b) is proving to be incredibly deadly to birds of all types. According to the department of agriculture, over 50 million domestic birds have been killed so far this year by the avian flu. That’s everything from chickens to emus [Note: The woman in that emu story is highly problematic for a number of reasons, the emu in the story turned out to not have avian flu, and sleeping with a bird you think does have avian flu is a colossally bad idea]. France has euthanized another 10 million in an effort to control the disease there. Similar culls of birds are going in many nations, but so far, the disease rages on.
The tally among wild birds is unknown.
So far, the 2022 flu season among birds has been spectacularly awful. This isn’t the avian equivalent of COVID-19. For many species, this is the Black Death.
Why is it so awful? In part, because it’s bouncing back and forth between the wild and domestic populations. Wild populations provide free transport. Meanwhile, when one group of birds is wiped out by disease, what do farmers do? They bring in thousands of more birds that are more or less genetically identical to the ones that just died, ensuring a new and susceptible population is ready to gestate more viruses.
Then there’s one other factor:
By infecting migratory seabirds at the right time and in the right place, clade 22.214.171.124b was able to make a journey no HPAI we know of has made before: crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Historically, HPAI influenzas in North America have either emerged locally or crossed the Pacific. Yet in December 2021, the virus was found in domestic birds in St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, likely caught from infected seabirds that flew over through Iceland, Greenland, and the Canadian high Arctic. The latest data from the US Department of Agriculture shows the clade has since spread across the United States up to Alaska’s western coast. With flocks moving up and down the Atlantic Flyway, the invisible highway that birds use to migrate from North America to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, the virus has already migrated far south. Late in November 2022, roughly 14,000 seabirds, including pelicans and blue-footed boobies, died along the coast of Peru. Each body was disposed of in a black bin bag.
In recent decades, bird populations have already been under enormous pressure from pollution, hunting, and habitat loss. For some bird species, 2022 is going to take on special significance because it’s going to be their last year on earth.
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