Avian Influenza, also known as Avian or Bird Flu, is a form of influenza caused by a virus found in birds.
Avian Flu is similar to variants found in animals and humans – caused strains of influenza that have adapted to specific hosts.
This article will further give details about Avian influenza within the context of the IAS Exam. The details will help candidates in staying up to date about recent events for the current affairs segment of the exam.
A novel strain of Avian Flu H5N1, which surfaced in 2020, has not only disseminated more extensively than ever among avian populations but has also infiltrated other animal species, causing concerns of a possible human epidemic.
Concerns with the current outbreak
The virus from the current strain has been rapidly infecting not just birds but also many mammals. It is the first time that seabirds and raptors are dying because of the disease. It is spreading to more species of birds than ever before.
- The virus has been also associated with a seal die-off in Maine, USA during the summer of 2022. In addition, an outbreak of H5N1 occurred on a mink farm in Spain in October 2022. The source of infection for the mink is unclear, but it’s believed that they were fed poultry by-products. Furthermore, sea lions in Peru and wild animals like bears, foxes, and skunks in the United States and Europe that hunt or scavenge birds have also been found to be infected with the virus.
- The virus has caused a few human cases, but there is no indication of person-to-person transmission. Out of the seven reported cases, six people have recovered, and only one person from China has died. An eighth case was reported in February 2023 by health officials in China, and the condition of the patient remains unknown.
- The human-to-human transmission of bird flu viruses is highly infrequent, and in those rare cases where it has occurred, it has only propagated to a limited number of individuals. Nevertheless, the likelihood of bird flu viruses undergoing mutations and acquiring the capability to effortlessly transmit between humans highlights the crucial need for public health monitoring of human infection and person-to-person transmission.
- An avian flu virus caused severe pneumonia in an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia in February 2023, leading to her death. This was the first reported case in the country since 2014. The girl’s father was also infected with a different variant of the virus but has not shown any symptoms. It is unclear how the two individuals were exposed to the virus.
The genetic analysis of the H5N1 virus found on the mink farm in Spain revealed a mutation that could make it easier for the virus to infect mammals, including humans. This mutation is known to help the virus infect mice and mammalian cells grown in the lab. While the researchers concluded that mink-to-mink transmission may have occurred on the farm, it is still unclear how much of a role this specific mutation played in the outbreak.
According to a decade-old controversial study on ferrets, which are often used as a substitute for humans in influenza studies, it was found that certain alterations to proteins that assist the virus in invading cells and reproducing could facilitate the virus’s spread through the air and its infection of ferrets.
The Challenges Ahead
The challenge of anticipating which avian influenza viruses could potentially cause a human outbreak is partly due to a lack of knowledge. Typically, these viruses that infect birds do not easily spread among mammals, including humans, however, the current strain’s widespread presence in many animals has shown that there is a very high possibility that the mutation to activate the mammal-to-mammal transmission is just a few steps away. Scientists are still working to understand what changes in these viruses could enable human transmission.
The only respite is that we do have drugs and vaccines that work against Avian Influenza, unlike the COVID pandemic, where we were taken by surprise.
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Overview of Avian Influenza
There are three types of influenza viruses labelled A, B and C. It is the ‘A’ variant which is found mostly in birds and is commonly referred to as Avian Influenza.
Recent studies into genes of the Spanish flu virus have shown it was adapted from both human and avian strains. Avian influenza strains are also further divided as per their pathogenicity: high pathogenicity (HP) or low pathogenicity (LP).
Note: Pathogenicity can be defined as the capacity of a microbe to cause damage in a host, while virulence refers to the degree of damage caused by the microbe.
The well-known strains is H5N1, first isolated from a farm goose in China in 1996. Low pathogenic variants have also been found in North America.
Between early 2013 and early 2017, 916 lab-confirmed human cases of H7N9 were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO).
What are the Subtypes of the Avian Influenza?
Although there are many subtypes of avian influenza viruses, only the following strains are known to infect humans:
Strains like the H10N8 and H10N3 also have been found to infect humans.
Infections in humans are a result of handling infected poultry birds. Even contaminated surfaces and droppings can also be a source of infections. H5N1 is a large threat in Asia with infected poultry due to low hygiene conditions and close quarters. Although it is easy for humans to contract the infection from birds, human-to-human transmission is more difficult without prolonged contact.
Modes of Transmission of Avian Influenza
Direct contact between infected and healthy birds is how avian influenza primarily spread. It is found in secretions from nostrils, mouth eyes etc. HPAI infection is spread through people from infected poultry, the disease itself is not airborne.
Although it is possible for humans to contract the avian influenza virus from birds, human-to-human contact is much more difficult without prolonged contact.
The following man-made ecosystems have contributed to the spread of avian influenza:
- Indoor commercial poultry
- Range-raised commercial poultry
- Live poultry markets
- Hobby flocks
- Bird collection and trading systems
Out of the 5, it’s indoor commercial poultry that has the largest impact when it comes to the spread of Avian influenza. The rate of spread has only increased in the 1990s.
Impact of Avian Influenza
World Health Organization member states have recognised the need for a transparent system regarding sharing of vaccines and benefits from other networks. Cooperative measures created in response to HPAI have served as a basis for programs related to other emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.
About 20% of the protein consumed is from the poultry industry. Periodic infections from bird flu do have an impact on poultry consumption as infected birds are culled in large numbers. In Vietnam alone, 50 million birds were culled as part of infection control programs. As per a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), economic losses in South East Asia totalled around US$ 10 billion.
The impact on small commercial farmers is the greatest. Government compensation for lost poultry has varied from time to time. Some received compensation far below the market rate, while some received no compensation at all.
Poultry is one of the cheapest sources of protein available. The loss of poultry birds will mean a loss of food security for low-income groups. Now, as of 2021, there have been certain strains which have been infecting humans of late. Due to the close contact nature of the poultry industry, it is likely that there is another pandemic in the making.
For more topics on Current Affairs, visit the linked article.
Frequently asked Questions Related to Avian Influenza
How is Avian influenza transmitted to humans?
Which type of birds are commonly affected by avian influenza?
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