Bird flu cases rise in Europe, Asia

21 people in China have contracted bird flu in 2021, compared with only five last year.

Maija Kappler 3 minute read November 15, 2021
bird flu

A 2018 study said the avian flu could potentially become pandemic. (Getty)

The months leading into winter is typically the time when we’re more likely to catch a cold or flu than the rest of the year. Unfortunately, it’s also the time, apparently, when we’re more susceptible to bird flu.

There’s no need to panic: Health Canada hasn’t issued any warnings, besides its usual advisory to take precautions when traveling to regions where avian influenza is present. (The agency specifically mentions Egypt, Indonesia, China and Vietnam.)

Still, the avian flu has been spreading across Europe and Asia recently. Last week, there was an outbreak at a poultry farm in Chungcheongbuk-do province in South Korea, which affected 770,00 animals. Around the same time, poultry infections were also reported at a farm in northeastern Japan and in Rogaland, Norway. And governments in Belgium, France and the Netherlands are on alert, with all three governments imposing orders that poultry must be kept indoors to prevent virus transmission, according to Reuters.

The most concerning news comes from China, where the virus has spread from birds to people. The country has reported 21 human infections with in 2021 to the World Health Organization (WHO). Six people have died, and several others are in critical condition, Reuters reported. Last year, only five people in China got the avian flu.

All of the people who contracted the illness in China caught it directly from birds: there are no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission, the World Health Organization specified.

Bird flu presents similarly to the typical flu, according to Healthline: symptoms include cough, headaches, sore throat, high fever, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, sore throat and runny nose. In severe cases, it can cause pneumonia, sepsis or organ failure. It’s generally treated with antiviral medicines.

Wild aquatic birds regularly get infected with bird flu, but don’t usually get sick. The problem starts when they pass the virus to domesticated birds like chicken, turkeys and ducks. Those birds can get very sick and die from bird flu, and can infect other birds through saliva, mucus or feces. But they don’t necessarily have to be sharing space with infected birds to get sick — the virus can be transmitted through infected surfaces.

Another danger of bird flu, besides humans getting infected, is the possible evolution of the disease. The low pathogenic strains H5 and H7 can potentially evolve into highly pathogenic viruses, which could become very contagious and cause severe illness. A 2018 study published in the journal Viruses found that the potential evolution of H5 and H7 viruses “pose a significant pandemic threat.” It called on viral surveillance efforts and the development of bird flu vaccines to “predict and potentially reduce the burden of an H5 or H7 influenza virus pandemic.”

The FDA has approved a vaccine to treat bird flu, although it isn’t available to the public. Health Canada has not yet approved any avian flu vaccine.

The good news is, most of the practices we’re already doing to curb the spread of COVID are also effective against bird flu (and many other contagious illnesses): frequent handwashing, covering your mouth with your elbow when you sneeze, and monitoring symptoms. People who don’t regularly come into contact with poultry have a very low chance of transmission. And while there’s no evidence that any person has ever contracted the bird flu from eating undercooked chicken or turkey, many health authorities suggest being extra careful when preparing and eating poultry.