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The world is currently witnessing an unprecedented avian influenza outbreak (bird flu), with experts warning of the virus’s rapid mutation. Although the risk to humans is still low, this situation calls for proactive measures, especially from the poultry industry.

Source: Bloomberg Quicktake/Youtube

First emerging in 1996, the H5N1 bird flu virus has been mostly contained to seasonal outbreaks until a significant change occurred in mid-2021. Richard Webby, head of a World Health Organization collaborating center studying influenza in animals, notes that the virus has become increasingly infectious since then. This has led to year-round outbreaks, causing mass deaths among wild birds and resulting in tens of millions of poultry being culled worldwide.

Research led by Webby and published in Nature Communications reveals how the virus has evolved as it spread from Europe into North America, becoming more virulent and causing more dangerous diseases. Alarmingly, recent experiments found a new strain causing an unexpectedly “huge” amount of virus in the brain of a ferret, indicating more serious disease than previous strains.

Another worrisome development is the virus’s increasing detection in mammals, from sea lions and dolphins in Chile to minks in Spain. This suggests potential transmission between mammals, which, according to Webby, is a “really, really troubling sign”.

Ian Brown, virology head at the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, reassures that the virus remains “unadapted to humans”, binding to different cell receptors than human viruses. But it would only take “two or three minor changes in one protein of the viruses” to become more adapted to humans, Webby warns.

With the need to reduce the overall number of bird flu cases and consequently the human risk, a call to vaccinate poultry worldwide is echoing among experts. While some countries like China, Egypt, and Vietnam have launched poultry vaccination campaigns, others have shown reluctance due to import restrictions and the risk of vaccinated but infected birds slipping through unnoticed.

As the virus evolves, the need to address this outbreak becomes even more pressing. Let’s raise awareness about this situation and call for more frequent vaccination in traditionally reluctant countries. Together, we can help prevent this bird flu outbreak from escalating further and potentially affecting humans. Stay informed and vigilant.

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