H5N1 poses no danger to humans, experts say

Bird Flu does not pose any current danger to human beings, says Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.  

“This is a significant agricultural disaster,” Khan said. “But this [influenza] is not very good at infecting humans.” 

Like the rest of the world, the United States continues to face an ongoing outbreak of highly pathogenic – meaning that the disease spreads quickly – avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1). The current clade of H5N1 has been detected in wild birds in all 50 states, and in 47 of the 50 states there are “bird outbreaks,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). More than 58 million commercial poultry or backyard flocks have been affected by H5N1, causing an international farming crisis.  

“The risk is to domestic poultry,” Khan said. “48 million birds culled (killed) at this point, and God knows how many  tens or hundreds of millions of eggs not been laid because of this event. Unlike prior avian influenza outbreaks, this version of the virus is extremely contagious, and is continuing to spread within the [avian] community. Prior outbreaks and eventually get them under control. That has not been true for this one, for almost a year and a half, two years now.” 

 Khan attributes this to the influenza’s ability to spread efficiently between wild and domestic birds, which he said will potentially have long-term impacts for poultry and egg farms. Although the United States has faced outbreaks of H5N1 in the past, Khan said that “this is the largest outbreak [of H5N1] I’ve seen.”  

 To prevent further infection within avian populations, Khan said that vaccination is an option to protect birds from the flu.  

 “It would be a bird vaccine,” Khan said.  

 But the ramifications of vaccination would be immense on the global scale. 

 “If you vaccinate your animals, then they are not eligible for the export market. So, you would basically be closing off the export market,” Khan said. “That’s why these animals are culled as opposed to vaccinated [to prevent illness].” 

 While there have been a small, sporadic number of cases of humans becoming infected with H5N1, Khan re-emphasized that it should not be the main worry: “There have been over 800 cases of human infection with avian influenza [since the early 2000s]. So just think of it in the big picture,” Khan said.  

 Dr. Tim Uyeki of the CDC said that seven cases of human contracted H5N1 have been identified globally since January 2022, and there have been zero instances of person-to-person contracted infection.  

 Khan said these cases could have been caused by extraneous circumstances. “It may be possible [that] you inhale some of this virus. If I come up to you after you do that and swab your nose, I’ll find it, but it doesn’t really mean you’re infected,” he explained. “It just happens to be there because you’re around all these dead and dying birds.” 

 Khan stressed that human cases were extremely rare, but on the off chance that there was a human case, it could be severe.  

 Khan didn’t give people a free license to forget about the flu, though. He thinks that influenza viruses need to be worried about before the next pandemic. 

 “So, the interesting thing about influenza viruses, which make them very problematic, and why we worry about the next pandemic,” he said, “is that they can infect multiple animals, and when they infect multiple animals, they can swap their genetic material between them, and you get these weird hybrid viruses.”  

After this genetic material is swapped, influenza can start infecting humans.  In fact, the Spanish Influenza over a century ago originated from a bird virus. But Khan once more said not to worry. “The only way they’re similar is that they’re bird viruses,” he said. “The 1918 one somehow figured out how to infect humans.”  

 He didn’t exclude the possibility of the current outbreak of H5N1 infecting humans, though. “This bird virus could, at the same time, infect a human or who’s infected with influenza or pig who’s infected with influenza, swap a couple of genes, and voila,” he exclaimed. “You have the next influenza pandemic.” 

 Khan said that, no matter what, it is imperative that people are vaccinated against infectious diseases to slow the spread once they are human-borne. Referring to COVID-19, Khan said, “[There are] still 400 deaths a day. The third leading cause of death in America is not behind us.” He stressed that individuals at high risk should still consider wearing masks, and that vaccination is the only strategy to slow the spread of COVID. “Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate,” Khan said.  

 As for future pandemics, Khan continued to caution individuals on the flu.  

 “It’s a reminder that the biggest threat to us always has been influenza, will always be influenza, because of the ability of influenza to essentially swap its genetic material to become worse,” he said. “We need to do what it needs to take to be ready for the next pandemic.”