Monday, April 8, 2024

Bird flu - time to panic?

Spoiler alert: No.

What is bird flu? It is an influenza virus, related to the seasonal flu viruses that plague us every winter but one which predominantly spreads among birds. The specifics are that is an H5N1 form of influenza. (Those letters and numbers describe certain proteins on the virus surface and vary quite a bit from year to year, epidemic to epidemic.)

This particular virus has reached pandemic status among birds – it has been found on every continent but Australia and has killed millions of birds. It seems to be spread by migrating wild birds but has been lethal to domestic fowl, leading to the culling of many flocks in Europe and America. The price of foie gras may go up.

The reason for the recent interest is that the virus can spread from birds to mammals. Foxes, cats, seals, dolphins and bears have been infected. Most recently, outbreaks of bird flu have occurred in dairy cattle in the U.S. Herds in at least five states have been infected.

Last week, the virus was confirmed to have infected a human: a farmworker in Texas. This is not new; scientists have known for some time that people who have direct contact with sick birds or mammals can be infected. To date, there have been no known cases of human-to-human spread.

The virus has been found in the milk from infected cows and eggs of infected chickens, but the virus is killed by pasteurization or cooking. It could potentially be spread by consuming raw milk or using uncooked eggs.

To become a serious threat to human health, the virus would have to undergo major mutations to allow human-to-human spread. Not impossible, but unlikely.

Also in our favor is that the few people proven to be infected with H5N1 have had very mild illness. The man in Texas had only conjunctivitis (“Pink eye”).

Finally, the antiviral drugs like oseltamivir (Tamiflu) work well to reduce symptoms, and are readily available.

So… stay away from raw milk for now, be sure to cook your eggs, and, most important, do not pick up or examine dead birds or animals, and warn your children not to do so. A veterinarian called to a north shore beach found that the dead birds were all infected. Let the pros handle it.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon

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