The form of the flu virus that cuts a sample through the feathered population is the H5N1 virus. Infected birds spread this flu in their saliva, by contact and in their droppings. When a person gets enough droplets of this flu, often by getting it on their hands and spreading it in their mouth or eyes, they can easily infect them with the strain that travels in birds. A number of people have been infected this year through this bird-to-human route.
At this time, fortunately, there is no version of the current strain of bird flu known to spread from person to person. However, it is entirely possible that this could happen if the virus picks up the necessary mutations, as happened with the SARS and SARS-CoV-2 viruses when moving from animal hosts.
The best way to limit the possibility of a human-to-human version of the current bird flu, which could eventually trigger another pandemic, is to limit the number of humans infected through the bird-to-human route. And this is best achieved by avoiding contact with infected birds. Which birds could be infected? Any of these, although the course of disease in birds is usually so rapid that the period of time in which domestic poultry are infected but not showing obvious symptoms (such as death) is brief. In any case, any interaction with any number of wild or domestic birds at this time should be treated as if entering a ‘hot zone’, complete with mask, gloves and after-contact cleaning procedures.
While the “hothouse” conditions of caged poultry weaken these animals and make them highly susceptible to any infection, farms that attempt to be better stewards of their animals are also at risk. Chickens, turkeys and ducks allowed to roam in “free range” operations were wiped out when flocks of wild geese flew in to share their food or water.
Some people have become so concerned about the possibility of bird flu that they have taken down their bird feeders. However, for the most part, songbirds, woodpeckers, and other birds that frequent feeders are considered of little concern. Waterfowl and shorebirds in particular are considered likely carriers. That said, wash your hands after handling a bird feeder or other surfaces frequented by wild birds.
Mother Jones has a heartbreaking article right now about how this flu can affect birds of all types.
In the summer of 2022, gannets and skuas on the outer islands of Scotland started behaving oddly. They were going around in circles as if drunk. Their heads swelled up. They trailed their soft wings at their sides, the feathers brushing the ground. At a time when they should have reproduced and brought forth new life, they were dying. Scientists and ornithologists were at the forefront of an ecological disaster. It is feared that more than two-thirds of the world’s gannets and great skuas, birds that migrate across the Atlantic Ocean from eastern North America to western Europe, have disappeared.
That’s two-thirds of some ecologically vital and aesthetically majestic species lost last year to a single disease.
Just as the virus can jump from domestic birds to humans, it can also jump between infected wild birds and the species that feed on them. This doesn’t just include birds like eagles and hawks, but also mammals like foxes. Other species, such as pelicans and seals, which live in areas where these seabirds congregate in large numbers, have also been infected.
All of this is tragic, but it is also very unusual. Influenza is endemic in birds. It usually only makes them slightly sick. This is true of the H5N1 strain as well as other forms of influenza A. One of the main reasons why the term “bird flu” seems to come up as a concern every few years is that birds don’t die of an influenza infection. Instead, they get a bird’s equivalent of a snotty nose and then hang around, forming a reservoir of potential infection that can make that leap to humans.
Only this time, this particular variant of the H5N1 (H5N1-HPAI-clade 184.108.40.206b) proves incredibly deadly to birds of all types. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, more than 50 million domestic birds have been killed so far this year by bird flu. It’s everything from chickens to emus [Note: The woman in that emu story is highly problematic for a number of reasons, the emu in the story turned out to not have avian flu, and sleeping with a bird you think does have avian flu is a colossally bad idea]. France has euthanized another 10 million people in a bid to control the disease there. Similar bird slaughters are taking place in many countries, but so far the disease is raging.
The number of wild birds is unknown.
The 2022 bird flu season so far has been spectacularly horrific. It is not the avian equivalent of COVID-19. For many species, it’s the Black Death.
Why is it so awful? In part, because it bounces between wild and domestic populations. Wild populations provide free transportation. Meanwhile, when a flock of birds are wiped out by disease, what do the farmers do? They bring in thousands more birds that are more or less genetically identical to those that just died, ensuring that a new susceptible population is ready to spawn more virus.
Then there is another factor:
By infecting migrating seabirds at the right time and place, clade 220.127.116.11b was able to make a journey that no known HPAI has done before: crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Historically, HPAI influenzas in North America have either emerged locally or crossed the Pacific. Yet in December 2021, the virus was found in domestic birds in St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, likely captured by infected seabirds that flew over Iceland, Greenland and the Far East. Canadian Arctic. The latest data from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that the clade has since spread across the United States to the west coast of Alaska. With flocks moving up and down the Atlantic Flyway, the invisible highway birds use to migrate from North America to the Caribbean, Central and South America, the virus has already migrated far to the south. At the end of November 2022, around 14,000 seabirds, including pelicans and blue-footed boobies, died along the coast of Peru. Each body was thrown into a black garbage bag.
In recent decades, bird populations have already come under enormous pressure from pollution, hunting and habitat loss. For some species of birds, 2022 is going to be of particular significance because it will be their last year on earth.
Why did the Democrats do so surprisingly well at the midpoint? Turns out they had some really good campaigns, as strategist Josh Wolf tells us in this week’s episode of Downvoting. This means they defined their opponents aggressively, spent efficiently and stayed the course despite endless questioning in the press. Wolf gives us an inside picture of exactly how these factors played into the race for governor of Arizona, one of the most important Democratic wins of the year. It also sheds light on an unsexy but crucial aspect of every campaign: how to manage a multi-million budget for a company designed to spend to zero on Election Day.
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