The last time I checked on the pandemic of avian flu/bird flu, which has an enormously high infection fatality rate, the disease was poised to become endemic and was beginning to cross over into other species.
There have been some recent developments that are troubling. Reports show that the avian flu has hit the Northern California poultry industry hard.
In California, the outbreak has impacted more than 7 million chickens in about 40 commercial flocks and 24 backyard flocks, with most of the outbreaks occurring over the past two months on the North Coast and Central Valley, according to the USDA.
Industry officials are worried about the growing number of backyard chickens that could become infected and spread avian flu to commercial farms.
“We have wild birds that are are full of virus. And if you expose your birds to these wild birds, they might get infected and ill,” said Rodrigo Gallardo, a UC Davis researcher who studies avian influenza.
Gallardo advises the owners of backyard chickens to wear clean clothes and shoes to protect their flocks from getting infected. If an unusual number of chickens die, they should be tested for avian flu.
In terms of transmission to non-bird species, the news is grim. Over 17,000 southern elephant seal pups were found dead on Argentina’s Valdés Peninsula. The mass die-off is being blamed on the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus.
The bird flu outbreak was officially confirmed by the Argentine Government Animal Health Service (SENASA), raising concerns among conservationists and scientists that the virus had mutated to be transmissible from mammal-to-mammal.
“I started to work with these animals in the ’70s, and I have never seen something like this. Nobody has seen something like this,” Claudio Campagna, a conservation researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Argentina and lead author of a new study on the mass die off, told Live Science.
In the paper, published Dec. 25 in the journal Marine Mammal Science, the researchers report a “catastrophic” mortality of southern elephant seal pups (Mirounga leonina) in November 2023. These pups are usually born from September to November and stay with their mother for around three weeks.
There have been recent reports of human infections in Cambodia as the virus continues to sweep across the globe.
Since 2021, Europe and the Americas have been suffering from a nearly continuous outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza which has been described as “the largest-ever” on the three continents. The virus has affected tens of millions of birds and thousands of mammals worldwide. Outbreaks of the virus have also become more common in Africa and Asia in the past year.
In Cambodia, two cases of H5N1 bird flu have been reported in humans in the past month. The first case was reported in a three-year-old boy last week in the Prey Veng province of southeast Cambodia. On Sunday, a 69-year-old man in the Siem Reap province of northwestern Cambodia was found to be infected as well.
Both the three year old and the 69 year old were in intensive care. The older man had been raising dozens of chickens before falling ill. The boy lived in a village where chickens and ducks had died.
The virus has even found its way to Antarctica.
At least one king penguin is suspected to have died from bird flu in the Antarctic. If confirmed, it will be the first of the species killed by the highly contagious H5N1 virus in the wild.
Researchers have previously raised alarm about “one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times” if bird flu reached remote Antarctic penguin populations. The birds are currently clustering together for breeding season, meaning the disease could rip through entire colonies if it continues to spread through the region.
A study done by St. Jude’s Research Hospital took a look at the virus, and it appears there has been a genetic switch to target mammals’ brains.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital scientists discovered how the current epizootic H5N1 avian influenza virus (bird flu) gained new genes and greater virulence as it spread west. Researchers showed that the avian virus could severely infect the brains of mammalian research models, a notable departure from previous related strains of the virus. The researchers genetically traced the virus’ expansion across the continent and its establishment in wild waterfowl populations to understand what makes it so different. The study was recently published in Nature Communications.
“We haven’t seen a virus quite like this one,” said corresponding author Richard Webby, Ph.D., St. Jude Department of Infectious Diseases. “In 24 years of tracing this particular H5N1 flu lineage, we haven’t seen this ability to cause disease but also be maintained in these wild bird populations.”
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.