Avian Flu: A Global Threat We Can’t Afford to Ignore
Avian Flu: A Global Threat
The world is once again facing a virus threat from an animal-borne disease, this time in the form of avian influenza (bird flu). The H5N1 strain of the virus has already caused the deaths of over 58 million birds in the U.S. and has spread to other species of mammals, including humans in rare cases, raising concerns about the virus's potential to spread further. If a human outbreak were to occur, it could have catastrophic effects.
The virus was first described as “fowl plague” in northern Italy in 1878, but it wasn't until 1996 that the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain was discovered in geese being bred on a farm in southern China that raised serious alarms. The current outbreak has already caused billions of dollars in losses to governments and farmers and has devastated wild and domestic bird populations, leading to an estimated 15 million deaths.
Now, incoming chief scientist of the World Health Organization, Sir Jeremy Farrar, is calling on governments to start investing in vaccines against all strains of flu circulating among birds and mammals in order to prepare for the possibility of a human outbreak. Farrar emphasizes the need for the pharmaceutical industry to conduct clinical trials for all influenza strains so that the world would not have to start from scratch to initiate global manufacturing should the need arise.
In November, the avian flu spread to a mink farm in Spain, leading to the death of 52,000 mink, and scientists observed genetic mutations in the virus which they say may carry “public health implications.” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreuesus, the Director-General of the WHO, recently stated that the risk of the virus to humans is still low, however he cautioned that this could easily change and preparations must be made in case of a shift in the current situation.
Bird flu experts warn that we could be “sleepwalking into disaster,” after it was revealed that of the 860 people known to have had human cases of the avian disease between 2003 and 2023, 53 percent have died. In Cambodia, a 14-year-old girl recently died of H5N1, and countries ranging from the United States and Britain to France and Japan have suffered record losses of poultry in outbreaks of avian flu in the past year.
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