Chickens in a poultry farm.
Illustration: PGN

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What you need to know

  • The current bird flu outbreak is the deadliest in history, has lasted longer than usual, and has been spreading to mammals.
  • It’s rare for bird flu to infect humans and for the virus to spread from person to person, but this could change.
  • The more the virus spreads, the more opportunities it gets to evolve into a form that threatens humans.

Worries about COVID-19 have lessened in recent months, only to be replaced by rising concerns around bird flu and its ability to cause a human pandemic. Luckily, bird flu is nowhere near as dangerous to humans as COVID-19 is, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to worry. The current bird flu outbreak has been making headlines for a reason. We haven’t experienced another outbreak exactly like it before, and there’s a chance it could evolve into a bigger threat to us in the near future. Here’s a breakdown of what we know about the virus and its impacts so far.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu, or avian flu, is an infectious disease that spreads primarily among domestic and wild birds. It has been around for decades and has evolved into several different lineages. The H5N1 virus behind the current outbreak is very contagious and deadly among birds, causing more than 58 million poultry deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2022. While some of the birds died directly from the disease, the vast majority were killed by farmers to try to stop the virus from spreading.

Why are people concerned about the current outbreak?

There are several reasons why the current bird flu outbreak stands out from previous outbreaks:

  • It is the deadliest one in history. Globally, more than 200 million birds have died, either directly from the disease or from being killed as a way to prevent the virus from spreading. It has also been more widespread among wild birds than ever before.
  • This outbreak has lasted longer than usual and still shows no signs of stopping. Bird flu outbreaks typically begin in the winter and end by the following summer. The current one, however, has been going on for more than a year.
  • This outbreak has also been impacting animals other than birds, with the virus infecting and killing minks, foxes, sea lions, and other mammals. These instances have raised concerns around whether the virus is mutating to spread more easily among mammals.

Are humans at risk?

It’s rare for bird flu to infect humans, but it has happened. Over the last two decades, H5N1 has infected nearly 900 people globally. More than half of those people died from the disease. Most human cases of bird flu have been among people who were in direct or close contact with infected birds. The U.S. has recorded only one human case of bird flu, which was detected in April 2022 in a Colorado man who was involved in killing possibly infected poultry on a commercial farm.

Since bird flu doesn’t spread easily from person to person, the risk of it causing a human pandemic is currently unlikely. Experts say the virus would have to go through several genetic changes to be able to spread easily among humans. But the state of the current outbreak has made scientists more anxious. The more the virus spreads, the more opportunities it gets to mutate and potentially evolve into a form that threatens humans.

How can you protect yourself?

As of now, you do not need to worry about getting infected unless you come in contact with wild or domestic birds. If you work or live with birds, avoid unprotected contact with those that may be sick or are dead. Infected birds shed the virus in their saliva, mucus, and feces, and humans can get infected when enough of that virus gets into our eyes, nose, or mouth. The best way to stay protected when coming in contact with possibly infected birds is to:

  • Wear disposable gloves, an N95 mask, and eye protection.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Wash your hands and change your clothes after contact.

Are infectious diseases becoming more common?

We’ve just reached the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it feels like the potential for another pandemic is already looming. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen polio, monkeypox, and Marburg outbreaks. Now, we need to stay alert about bird flu. Whether infectious diseases have truly become more common is hard to say, but factors such as urbanization, worldwide travel, and climate change have provided more chances for these illnesses to infect human hosts. It’s crucial to push the government to invest in pandemic preparedness and to take measures now to prevent future outbreaks.