GLOBAL – In a paradigm-shifting turn of events, avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, has unleashed havoc on animal populations worldwide, and the repercussions are beginning to transcend the animal kingdom. 

A coalition comprising the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) has sounded the alarm, calling for urgent global cooperation to combat the devastating outbreaks and protect both animals and humans.

Since its emergence in 1996, the goose/Guangdong lineage of H5N1 avian influenza viruses has relentlessly plagued bird populations across the globe.

However, a variant of these viruses belonging to the H5 clade has triggered an unprecedented surge in deaths among wild birds and poultry since 2020.

From Africa to Asia and Europe, the contagion has now infiltrated North and Central America, causing the loss of over 131 million domestic poultry and countless wild birds.

Recent reports have unveiled a disconcerting escalation in deadly outbreaks of influenza A(H5) viruses among mammals—a development that raises concerns about the potential for viral adaptation to humans.

The alarming tally of affected mammals encompasses farmed mink in Spain, seals in the United States, and sea lions in Peru and Chile, affecting at least 26 species.

Additionally, H5N1 viruses have been detected in domestic animals such as cats and dogs in several countries, with Poland recently announcing the discovery of H5N1 in cats.

Human risk factor

While human cases of influenza A(H5N1) clade virus remain rare, their severity and high mortality rate cannot be understated.

The current instances of infection primarily result from close contact with infected birds and contaminated environments.

Authorities emphasize that there is currently no evidence of efficient human-to-human transmission. However, vigilant monitoring and research are essential to identify any viral evolution that may enhance the risk to human health.

Scientists worldwide are working tirelessly to understand the recent surge in mammal outbreaks and identify any changes in the virus that may facilitate easier transmission between mammals, including humans.

The rapidly evolving nature of the H5N1 virus necessitates continuous monitoring and the timely sharing of genetic sequences to inform risk assessments and disease control strategies.

Given the severity of the situation, the FAO, WHO, and WOAH have jointly urged countries to strengthen biosecurity measures to prevent avian influenza at its source, with a particular emphasis on enhanced hygiene practices and the implementation of sound surveillance.

They’ve also been urged to swiftly detect, report, and respond to animal outbreaks, apply recommended control strategies in a timely manner, and bolster influenza surveillance in both animals and humans, facilitating early response through risk-based surveillance and timely reporting of avian influenza cases.

In addition, countries are advised to conduct thorough epidemiological and virological investigations surrounding animal outbreaks and human infections to inform containment efforts and prioritize influenza pandemic preparedness at all levels to enhance global response capabilities.

They should also facilitate rapid and open sharing of genetic sequence data, promoting collaboration and expedited research and fostering collaboration between the animal and human health sectors, enabling information sharing, joint risk assessment, and coordinated responses.

Ultimately, increased public awareness through effective communication, training healthcare workers, and advising the general public and animal workers to report sick and dead animals and seek medical care promptly when necessary is key.

Road ahead

With the avian influenza virus now spreading across five continents, the urgent need for global cooperation and heightened vigilance cannot be overstated.

The FAO, WHO, and WOAH are actively engaging experts, monitoring viral evolution, and updating guidelines to combat this evolving threat.

They continue to collaborate with nations to strengthen preparedness and response efforts, fostering cooperation across sectors and borders.

The stakes are high, as the well-being of animals, human lives, and global economies hangs in the balance.

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