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Experts report on the increasing risk from avian flu

Bird flu can be spread by close contact with an infected bird (dead or alive).

Chickens at a farm. —Image by © Tim Sandle
Chickens at a farm. —Image by © Tim Sandle

Reports of the detection of avian influenza virus in cattle highlights an urgent need for ramped up efforts to prevent spillover of viruses from animals to people. This is according to scientific experts from Preventing Pandemics at the Source, who are concerned about the global implications of bird flu’s spread.

The reports relate to the detection of highly contagious bird flu (H5N1) to cows (and later detected in milk) in the U.S.  As a consequence, experts worry about parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Globally, the types of pathogens that are transmitted, or spill over, between animals and people are the source of most emerging infectious diseases in humans.

The context leading to these concerns relates to climate change, biodiversity loss as well as with the COVID-19 pandemic. Another risk factor arises from a lack of sustainability and the intensification of for-profit meat production.

Dr. Nigel Sizer, Executive Director of Preventing Pandemics at the Source (PPATS) explains: “Recent revelations of the extent of bird flu virus infections in poultry and cattle in the United States highlight that policymakers have again taken their eyes off the ball in efforts to protect humanity from new pandemics.”

Bird flu can be spread by close contact with an infected bird (dead or alive). This includes:

  • touching infected birds
  • touching droppings or bedding
  • killing or preparing infected poultry for cooking

Markets where live birds are sold can also be a source of bird flu.

In terms of the zoonotic potential, Sizer clarifies: “ Experts are deeply concerned that this virus, which is spreading in many other species, could evolve to become transmissible between humans.  This is deeply frustrating so soon after COVID-19, which resulted in around 20 million lives lost, not to mention the devastating impact of mpox more recently – both diseases likely the result of spillover of viruses from wildlife to humans.”

Mpox (formerly known as monkeypox) is a disease caused by infection with a virus that is part of the same family as the virus that causes smallpox. People with mpox often get a rash, along with other symptoms.

The basis for this potential transmission existing relates to the state of regulation. Sizer finds: “In this case it is hard not to point the finger at lax monitoring and regulation of animal agriculture in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Improved animal husbandry conditions, more rigorous inspection standards, as well as better reporting and sharing of animal health information could reduce the risk of these outbreaks as well as improve the welfare of the animals we consume.  We must question for how much longer consumers will have to worry that the price of a cheap sausage or steak is the risk of another global pandemic.”

To address these gaps, government intervention is needed both at the national and international level.

In addition, the experts recommend that adopting a ‘One Health’ approach when addressing viral pandemic threats is imperative.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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