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I'm worried about bird flu
No one in global health expected the COVID-19 pandemic. We expected a massive pandemic. Everyone knew that was coming. But we didn’t expect a coronavirus.
We were expecting influenza.
Some of us were expecting human seasonal influenza to be the next pandemic. That would look lot like the 1918 flu pandemic. Your standard type A or B influenza virus is already very contagious. All it needs to do is mutate from somewhat deadlyto extremely deadly and we’re in a global catastrophe. This is pretty likely to happen. Influenza mutates all the time - that’s why we all need a new vaccine every year.
Some of us were expecting avian influenza. Avian influenza is very, very common in both wild and domestic birds. It’s surprisingly difficult to find statistics on how many farmed birds are culled for influenza every year, but I did some back of the envelope math. About 16 million birds around the world are culled due to outbreaks in an average year and 50-60 million birds in a year with a lot of influenza. It is very deadly in birds, and it is very deadly in people. Right now it rarely infects people, and it doesn’t spread from person to person. It kills half the people it infects, but it doesn’t spread among humans.
In the long run, we’re going to see both kinds of pandemic influenza. Influenza just mutates too fast, and we’re very bad at keeping human viral outbreaks from turning pandemic. The question is - which kind of influenza becomes a pandemic next?
It looks to me like avian influenza is our next pandemic flu.
The US is currently in the grips of the worst bird flu epidemic it has ever faced. 58.5 million birds have died or been culled due to avian influenza in 47 states since January 2022. According to an expert quoted on NBC news, “As it is now, this is the largest animal emergency that the USDA has faced in this country.”
So, that’s bad. It’s bad for wild bird populations, especially threatened and endangered populations. It’s bad for the cost of food.
And I suspect it’s going to be bad for people. As I’ve mentioned before, avian influenza is very fatal and very contagious among birds. It’s also very fatal to people - but it doesn’t spread person to person. It doesn’t spread among mammals at all.
Well, it didn’t used to.
Brand new scientific research just documented avian influenza spreading among farmed minks in a large farm in Spain. The minks weren’t being infected by birds. They were spreading it to each other.
Minks are not people. They’re actually very different in terms of their susceptibility to bird flu. But this is a whole new frontier in influenza mutation. It’s happening in the middle of the biggest avian influenza outbreak ever documented. Big outbreaks mean lots of virus out there reproducing and mutating.
And I’m worried about bird flu. These developments mean an avian influenza pandemic among people is closer than it used to be. Not tomorrow. But maybe soon.
Final note: Not everyone is worried about avian influenza. People much more qualified than I am are reminding us that risk is low. I’ve certainly made mistakes before.
Useful COVID reading for this week:
We are finally moving on a nasal COVID vaccine - this could be very good news.
Seriously people, ivermectin really doesn’t work.
Seasonal influenza has a death rate of 1.8 per 100,000 cases.
Influenza viruses are categorized as type A, B. C, or D. A and B are the seasonal flu we’re all familiar with. 1918 was a type A influenza virus, as was the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Type B hasn’t caused a pandemic yet, but it’s not for lack of potential.
If you’ve ever considered becoming a vegetarian for ethical reasons, I feel like this statistic should help that decision along.
We’re also very bad at containing human bacterial outbreaks - take a look at global Tuberculosis numbers - but that’s a rant for another day.
About 40 million of the birds that died were egg-laying hens that were culled.