New strains of the avian flu virus are causing havoc across Europe and Asia. Because of the number of variants, experts believe there is a greater risk of transmission to humans. According to the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health), over 40 countries reported bird flu outbreaks. The OIE noted that an “unprecedented genetic variability of subtypes” was spreading across the world . Though infections in humans are rare, the UK just reported a 79-year-old retired train driver to be the first human to test positive for one of the new variants. Fortunately, the gentleman reported no symptoms of the illness, and his latest test turned out negative .
Avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, is a viral respiratory illness that spreads quickly between birds and causes severe death and disease in poultry and some animals. It is caused by influenza viruses and can be lethal in humans. Within a region, the flu can be transmitted through bird saliva and other secretions. It is also spread by airborne feces-contaminated dust and soil, bird feed, or wild animals. Humans in close contact with infected birds can also spread the virus to birds through the dirt under their shoes or contaminated clothing. Markets that sell or keep live poultry are also more likely to spread the disease .
In winters, bird flu can spread across the globe when infected birds migrate to warmer regions to escape the cold weather. The country of Israel is currently battling a severe bird flu outbreak that resulted in the deaths of thousands of migratory wild cranes and half a million chickens . The country happens to be located at a critical point in one of the world’s biggest migration routes for birds. The UK is also experiencing a record-high number of bird flu cases; more than half a million birds have been culled . The southern state of Kerala in India experienced a large outbreak late last year. Thousands of ducks and local birds died or were killed to prevent further spread. Visiting migratory birds are believed to be the source. The international poultry trade is another way for avian influenza to spread across regions .
Avian flu outbreaks are of global concern because some subtypes of the virus are highly contagious. Even if the current outbreaks do not end up infecting many humans, the mass culling of infected birds can negatively impact regional sources of food and livelihood. Additionally, because avian influenza has the potential to cause severe illness and even death in humans, there is always a concern that the virus may be used as an agent of bioterrorism . Avian influenza history has also been filled with outbreaks and cases as well.