You Don't Need to Worry About A Bird Flu Pandemic Just Yet

Bird flu has a high mortality rate, but that's also why it's unlikely to cause a widespread outbreak anytime soon.

4 min read
Hindi Female

A bird flu outbreak was confirmed in Kerala's Alappuzha, after ducks in two districts tested positive for it.

The ducks will now be culled by the district administration.

This comes days after a dairy farm worker in Texas tested positive for the H5N1 virus - the first time that avian flu has transmitted to humans from cattle.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) held a press briefing at the White House where a panel of researchers said that the virus is being monitored.

"It has the potential to cause a pandemic that is 100 times worse than COVID-19"– in the past few days, you might have come across headlines like this splattered across the internet warning of the next big bad wolf in the world of infectious diseases – bird flu.

Given recent reports of human cases as well as outbreaks among other mammals, some of the panelists warned the H5N1 strain of bird flu is "dangerously close' to triggering a pandemic."

Other experts, however, say that the messaging is needlessly 'misleading and alarmist'.


Can Bird Flu Lead to a Pandemic?

Speaking at the briefing, Dr Suresh Kuchipudi, a bird flu researcher was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying, "now we are getting dangerously close to this virus (H5N1) potentially causing a pandemic."

Now, it is true that the H5N1 strain of birdflu can cause severe disease, even in humans, hence the name HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza).

In fact, according to the World Health Organization, H5N1 avian flu has a case fatality rate of 56 percent. That means more than half the people who who have gotten it so have have died from it.

Despite the scary stats, according to experts, a pandemic driven by the H5N1 virus isn't likely to occur in the near future.

"We shouldn't create panic," Dr Jacob T John, a retired Professor of Virology from CMC Vellore who is currently co-chair, India Technical Advisory Group (GoI) on Immunisation, tells FIT.

"H5N1 is not a pandemic prone virus because it is not very transmissible. Yes humans can get infected and when humans get infected it can cause severe disease. But the risk of infection is extremely low."
Dr Jacob T John

As per WHO's data which is updated monthly, since 2003, only 254 human cases have been detected all over the world, and none of them were transmitted from human to human.

There are a few reasons for this.

Dr John explains that it has to do with the innate characteristic of the H5N1 strain.

"In birds, it affects both the gastrointestinal tract and the respiratory tract. In humans it does not infect the upper respiratory tract, therefore infectiousness is low."
Dr Jacob T John

"When the upper respiratory tract is infected, the illness is highly transmissible (like in the case of COVID, TB, common cold)," he adds.

According to Dr Bharesh Dedhia, Chief of Critical Care at Hinduja Hospital Khar, another characteristic of the virus that helps contain its transmission is that it can only spread after the onset of the symptoms.

"Unlike COVID-19 that spreads before the onset of the symptoms, like any other flu, H5N1's infectious period starts after the onset of symptoms."

"So once a person develops cough and cold and other flu-like symptoms, you know the person can be infective so they can be isolated and the infection can be better contained."
Dr Bharesh Dedhia

‘Bird Flu Isn’t New to Us'

Unlike COVID-19 which blindsided us in 2019, "Bird flu has been around for decades now, and so far it hasn't caused an outbreak in humans ever," says Dr Dedhia. "We know it well, and its internationally being tracked."

This was confirmed by the White House and the US CDC during the press briefing.

Dr Dedhia adds that another good news is that the current strain on H5N1 is responsive to the drugs we have. "Regular antivirals also work on h5n1 virus so we don't have to worry too much."

So, why the sudden hubbub now?

Experts caution that the characteristics that make the virus less infectious also makes it very pathogenic (causing severe disease). This is why it would be a scary situation if the virus mutated to become more infectious.

Speaking at the press briefing, John Fulton, founder of Canada-based pharmaceutical company, BioNiagara was quoted as saying, "this appears to be 100 times worse than COVID – or it could be if it mutates and maintains its high case fatality rate."

This is true, not only for H5N1 but all other strains of influenza virus as well.

Dr Dedhia says, "There are thousands of mutations happening almost daily, and one of them may escape immunity and cause infection and that's how things spread."

"Anything can happen anytime. All influenza viruses have the potential to evolve and mutate into a more virulent variant. We have seen this during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1966, and even the swine flu outbreak in 2009."
Dr Jacob T John

At the recent briefing Futon also said, "Once it’s mutated to infect humans, we can only hope that the (fatality rate) drops." Fortunately, this is what is most likely to happen.

The experts FIT spoke to explain that the more infectious a virus is, the less virulant it becomes.

The omicron variant is a classic example of this, "it is more infectious, but less pathogenic," says Dr John.

Staying Vigilant is Key

According to Dr John, this particular case in the US garnered attention because it is the second human case in the country, and the first in the state of Texas.

"They're essentially covering their bases for the worse case scenario which is a pandemic. If in case on the very rare occasion that it does become a pandemic, they can say that they called it first before anyone else, and that they warned about it."
Dr Jacob T John

He goes on to reiterate, "the probability of the pandemic is very low at this time. However, we need to track the infections like with any other virus."

"Right now we just have to be vigilant and keep an eye out but I dont think there's any cause for panic," underscores Dr Dedhia.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Bird Flu   Bird Flu Scare 

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