June 22, 2024
Bird Flu

Bird Flu: A Looming Threat to Humans and Animals Across the World

Origins and Spread of Avian Influenza

Avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, is a viral infectious disease affecting birds globally. The disease originated in wild aquatic birds and can infect domestic poultry such as chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. The first outbreak in poultry was reported in Italy in 1878. Since then, multiple strains of the H5 and H7 subtypes have circulated and caused disease in domestic poultry around the world. One of the largest outbreaks was the H5N1 strain that began in Hong Kong in 1997 and led to the culling of over 1.5 million chickens. This highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 virus spread rapidly across Asia, Europe, and Africa in the following years through migratory wild birds and poultry trade.

Public Health Concerns of Zoonotic Transmission

While Bird Flu mostly affects bird populations, there is also a risk of human infection, known as zoonotic transmission. Certain avian influenza virus subtypes such as H5N1 and H7N9 have caused severe disease and even death in humans. As of 2022, there have been over 860 confirmed human cases of H5N1 infection across over 20 countries resulting in over 450 deaths. Meanwhile, over 1500 laboratory-confirmed human cases of H7N9 infection have been reported from China with nearly 40% mortality. The ability of avian influenza viruses to infect humans is a major public health concern globally as it poses pandemic potential if the virus mutates to allow efficient human-to-human transmission.

Surveillance Efforts to Monitor Avian Influenza Viruses

Given the threat posed by avian influenza, global surveillance efforts are underway to monitor the evolution and spread of these viruses in poultry and wild birds. The WHO, FAO, and OIE collaborate with countries worldwide through the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) to track influenza viruses. Samples are collected from infected and dead birds which are then tested by labs designated by these agencies. Full genome sequencing is performed on confirmed avian influenza isolates to identify mutations. This information helps assess the pandemic risk posed by circulating viruses and guides vaccine strain selection and public health response measures. However, surveillance remains challenging in low-resource settings with limited diagnostic capacity and infrastructure.

Impact on Poultry Industry and Livelihoods

In addition to human health implications, bird flu outbreaks have had devastating economic consequences on poultry industries worldwide. Countries incur huge losses due to costs of culling, implementing control zones, trade restrictions and loss of productivity. The H5N1 outbreaks between 2003-2005 caused over $10 billion in losses to Asian countries alone. More recently, H7N9 outbreaks in China since 2013 have led to culling of over 100 million birds and losses estimated at over $6.5 billion. Small holder poultry farming provides critical livelihoods in many developing nations but recurrent outbreaks disrupt supplies and markets, worsening food insecurity and poverty. Containing outbreaks is therefore crucial not just for public health but also economic development in low and middle-income nations.

Preventive Measures and Preparedness Activities

To curb the threat from bird flu, countries have implemented prevention and control strategies targeting both commercial poultry operations and small holder farms. Key measures include stamping out infected flocks through culling, quarantines and movement controls in affected areas. Enhanced biosecurity protocols are enforced through vaccination, improving farm infrastructure, restricting access and implementing all-in/all-out production cycles. Surveillance programs screen livestock and wild birds for early virus detection. Stockpiles of antiviral drugs and personal protective equipment are maintained for rapid response. Simulation exercises are conducted to test preparedness and coordination among animal health, public health and other relevant agencies. While such efforts have curtailed outbreaks, challenges remain in resource-constrained settings in fully implementing and sustaining preventive activities over the long term.

Global Collaboration for Pandemic Preparedness

The inherently transboundary nature of avian influenza demands global cooperation for effective preparedness and response. International organizations facilitate information sharing on virus spread and characteristics. Technology transfer programs have helped strengthen diagnostic capacity. Multi-sectoral partnerships have been fostered between human and animal health sectors through the One Health approach recognizing their interdependence. International stockpiles of antiviral drugs and other medical supplies have been established by WHO and partners for urgent deployment. The Global Influenza Strategy was developed by WHO to guide efforts through mutual support, exchange programs and funding mechanisms. While recognition of avian influenza as a shared international risk is growing, bolstering financing, operational capabilities and political commitment across all nations remains crucial to curb future pandemics. Concerted global action is still needed to fight this persistent infectious disease threat.

Bird FluĀ  poses an ongoing risk to poultry farms, wildlife and humans worldwide. Surveillance efforts aim to monitor virus evolution while response strategies focus on prevention, early detection and containment. International collaboration strengthens abilities of nations individually and collectively to prepare health systems and limit disease spread. While challenges persist, ongoing vigilance and coordination globally will be critical to avert future pandemics from this formidable zoonotic disease.

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1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it