The Bird Flu Outbreak Is Turning Into The Next Pandemic?

Scientists are concerned that the H5N1 virus (bird flu) could lead to the next pandemic because it has begun spreading to mammals and has a mortality rate of 52%.

By Tori Hook | Published

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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, experts and epidemiologists were quick to warn that this pandemic would likely not be the last we experience but was merely the first in recent history. Their warning has never seemed more ominous than it does now, with the bird flu spreading rapidly among avian populations around the world. This week, both Uruguay and Argentina declared national health emergencies after the avian influenza H5N1 have spread rapidly across avian populations, causing mass death.

H5N1 outbreaks have happened before; the difference now is that it’s managed to spread into mammal populations, affecting seal populations in Peru and mink in Spain. While H5N1 has yet to cause any outbreaks among humans—in fact, only two cases have been seen in the last 12 months, neither of which were fatal—scientists are concerned about the recent trend of the illness passing from avian populations to mammal populations. According to Wired, at least 60 countries have experienced H5N1 outbreaks recently, including the U.S., and over 58 million birds have died in the last year alone.

Chicken is the most-consumed meat worldwide, yet another cause for concern when thinking about the spread of bacteria. The price of eggs has already been significantly affected by the avian flu. Regardless of its spread to humans, the current bird flu outbreak has been the deadliest animal-disease outbreak in U.S. history, and its damage to natural and wild bird populations could be devastating.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, avian flu was widely considered by scientists to be the most likely animal disease to cause a human pandemic, and many scientists still believe it is a more significant threat. The first time H5N1 moved from birds to humans was in Hong Kong in 1997, where it sickened 18 people and killed six of them, giving the virus a 33 percent mortality rate, but the overall mortality rate in the history of the illness is 52%. Those are terrifying numbers when one considers that COVID’s mortality rate is approximately 1.5% and still killed millions of people.

The good news about the historical cases of H5N1, despite their staggering mortality rates, is that there have only been 868 human cases, indicating that the virus has not been able to spread quickly or easily enough through human populations to cause a mass outbreak. Regardless, scientists are always on the lookout for circumstances that would encourage such a large-scale outbreak. The recent mink outbreak in Spain, though, is cause for more concern.

Minks are related to ferrets, which are already used in much flu research because they so closely mimic symptoms of humans, so the lightning-quick spread of H5N1 through the population is of concern. Many scientists would argue that a foolproof method for stopping or at least slowing the avian flu would be reducing or stopping poultry production, but that action seems unthinkable for many. Biosecurity will never be a perfect defense against pandemics, but there are definitely steps to be taken to reduce the risk of another pandemic.