COVID-19 is not the only virus that has had a major impact on the planet in the last few years. Avian influenza (H5N1) has devastated the poultry industry, causing a 70% rise in egg prices last year, and not just livestock species.
A new study shows that the flu, which has killed hundreds of thousands of wild birds, is one of the most devastating disease epidemics in history. Box notes that the disease has spread to five continents and hundreds of species, including endangered species like the California condor, classifying the disease as a “panzoon”, a pandemic among animals. reported that it does.
Avian influenza usually causes mortality only among domestic birds such as ducks and chickens, killing up to 90% of a flock when an outbreak occurs. But not this time.
“What we’re seeing is uncharted territory,” wildlife geneticist Andrew Ramey of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) told Vox. The biology of the virus has led it to attack wild species and even mammals.
Wendy Pearer, a molecular virologist at Tufts University, said: “This is leading to high mortality in a wide range of wild birds, and this is something we’ve never seen before.” This is because the current bird flu virus has adapted to spread the disease outside poultry farms and then infect more species.
Why is bird flu a concern?
The current bird flu epidemic in North America in the winter of 2021 has killed more than 500 million birds worldwide, or forced farmers to cull them. Tracking the number of wild birds affected by the outbreak is even more difficult because governments do not have the resources to test all dead birds. “I’ve never seen numbers like this for flu outbreaks in wild birds,” Pearer told Box.
Avian influenza is a particular problem for biologists studying endangered species and small bird populations, such as the endangered Caspian tern of Michigan and the California condor. Nearly half of all bird species in the world are declining due to habitat loss or change, predation and invasive species. Bird flu is just another hurdle to restoring population numbers.
The virus already shows great evolutionary potential, so scientists are also wary of its potential impact on humans. H5N1 is unlikely to cause a pandemic in its current form, but could mutate and infect humans later, Vox reported.
What is being done to combat bird flu?
Further efforts are being made to diligently track the spread of avian influenza around the world and sample areas where influenza may be present. This monitoring will also help poultry farmers to be more vigilant and take appropriate biosecurity measures if an influenza epidemic is expected in their area.
Birdwatchers and naturalists can also play a role in tracking the spread of the virus. Citizen science programs like iNaturalist have the ability to track dead birds. Information is then shared with the appropriate organizations.
But the biggest question is how the poultry industry will adapt to viruses and persistent biosecurity threats in the years to come. As experts cited in the Vox article suggested, compact farming operations will only spread the virus uncontrollably, perhaps as a direct result of increased demand for meat and eggs and unsustainable poultry production. This is likely the cause.
“It’s helpful to remember that wild birds are the victims here,” said Nicola Hill, an infectious disease ecologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, as reported by Box. “They spread the HPAI, but it is not the original source.
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