July 17, 2024

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A Bird-Flu Pandemic in People? Here’s What It Might Look Like.

2 min read

The bird flu outbreak in dairy cattle has so far spilled over to just three farmworkers in the United States, as far as public health authorities know. All of them have had mostly mild symptoms.

But that does not guarantee that the virus, called H5N1, will remain benign if it begins to spread among people. Accumulating evidence from the animal world and data from other parts of the globe, in fact, suggest the opposite.

Some dairy cows never recovered from H5N1, and died or were slaughtered because of it. Infected terns seemed disoriented and unable to fly. Elephant seal pups had trouble breathing and developed tremors after catching the virus. Infected cats went blind, walking in circles; two-thirds of them died.

“I definitely don’t think there is room for complacency here,” said Anice Lowen, a virologist at Emory University.

“H5N1 is a highly pathogenic type of influenza virus, and we need to have a high degree of concern around it if it’s spilling over into humans,” she said.

In ferrets experimentally inoculated with the virus through their eyes — the presumed route of infection in the U.S. farmworkers — the virus rapidly spread to their airways, lungs, stomach and brain, according to a report published on Wednesday.

Other studies have found similar patterns in mice fed contaminated milk. The findings suggest that entry through the eyes or digestive system ultimately may not make the virus any less a threat.

H5N1 has shown itself to be promiscuous, rapidly gaining new hosts — wild birds and poultry, mice and bears, cats and sea lions. Since its discovery in 1996 in Hong Kong, it has also infected nearly 900 people.

An older version of the virus circulating in Asia has killed about half of those infected.

Of the 15 people known to have been stricken with the version that is now circulating in cattle, one in China died and another was hospitalized. Two patients in Chile and Ecuador had severe symptoms. Four Americans — one last year and the three…

Apoorva Mandavilli

2024-06-17 11:23:51

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