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Are People Getting Sick from Bird Flu? Quite Likely!

How many people have become sick from bird flu? The official report from the CDC suggests 1. We suspect a LOT more have caught H5N1. Why care?

Bird flu has been responsible for the deaths of over 100 million chickens, turkeys and wild birds. Now, scientists are increasingly worried because this H5N1 virus is spreading to cattle. Genomic analysis reveals that the virus made a jump to cows as early as December of 2023. It has been moving through herds ever since. Fortune (May 1, 2024) reports that a Texas veterinarian, Dr. Barb Petersen, was hearing from dairy farmers that they were seeing dead crows, pigeons and even barn cats. Birds and cows may not be the only ones getting sick from bird flu.

Do People Get Sick from Bird Flu?

Fortune reports that:

“At the same time, on almost every farm with sick animals, Petersen said she saw sick people, too.

“‘We were actively checking on humans,’ Petersen said. ‘I had people who never missed work, miss work.’”

Will Stone adds this report for NPR (May 2, 2024):

Gary Gray is an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

He told Will Stone that he suspects the true number of human cases:

“…is higher [than 1 documented case], based on what he heard from veterinarians, farm owners and the workers themselves as the virus hit their herds in his state.

“We know that some of the workers sought medical care for influenza-like illness and conjunctivitis at the same time the H5N1 was ravaging the dairy farms.”

Should People Worry About Getting Sick from Bird Flu?

Public health officials are playing down the dangers of bird flu in humans. Dr. Nirav Shah is the Principal Deputy Director (PDD) of the CDC.

He has stated this regarding the question about people getting sick from bird flu:

“The risk overall for the general public remains low.

“So it may go from a bird or a chicken to a human, and that human may indeed pass it on to a spouse, for example, but what we don’t see thereafter is sustained transmission from human to human.”

Dr. Shah’s statement may seem reassuring, but he is quoted by KFF Health and NBC News:

“Viruses evolve and outbreaks can shift quickly. ‘As with any major outbreak, this is moving at the speed of a bullet train,’ Shah said. ‘What we’ll be talking about is a snapshot of that fast-moving train.’ What he means is that what’s known about the H5N1 bird flu today will undoubtedly change.”

A Little History of Bird Flu in Humans:

Avian influenza dates back to the 19th century in Italy. The first modern bout of bird flu was detected in 1996. Waterfowl in Southern China became infected with H5N1. The virus spread to poultry.

According to the CDC:

“In 1997, H5N1 poultry outbreaks happen in China and Hong Kong with 18 associated human cases (6 deaths) in Hong Kong. This virus would go on to cause more than 860 human infections with a greater than 50% death rate.”

Hold that thought for more than a nanosecond please. A 50% death rate is hard to process. The mortality rate for the SARS-CoV-2 virus is estimated between 1 and 2%. That is to say, experts believe that about 1.4% of the individuals infected with COVID-19 died from the disease. A 50% death rate is incomprehensible. These deaths were presumably in people in close contact to infected birds…but that kind of mortality rate gives us pause.

The CDC goes on to state that:

“For several years, H5N1 viruses were not widely detected; however, in 2003, H5N1 re-emerges in China and several other countries to cause widespread poultry outbreaks across Asia. In 2005, wild birds spread H5N1 to poultry in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.”

In 2021 H5N1 reappeared in Canada and the US as well as in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

The CDC has been aware of human transmission for some time:

“In February 2022, the virus begins causing outbreaks in U.S. commercial and backyard poultry. Rare, sporadic human infections with this H5N1 virus are detected, as well as sporadic infections in mammals.”

How Do People Catch Bird Flu?

According to the CDC:

“Human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled. This can happen when virus is in the air (in droplets or possibly dust) and a person breathes it in, or possibly when a person touches something that has virus on it and then touches their mouth, eyes or nose. The spread of bird flu viruses from one infected person to a close contact is very rare, and when it has happened, it has not led to continued spread among people.”

Fast Forward to 2024:

The virus is showing up in milk and meat. Federal officials are just now starting to collect samples of both to determine how far the virus has spread. It has been detected in 36 herds since the end of March. If I were a betting man I would wager that a lot more herds have become infected. The US Government does not offer any incentive for cattle farmers to report that they are dealing with sick animals.

With 20% of milk samples testing positive, the virus is probably far more widespread than originally predicted. The FDA has said that preliminary tests indicate pasteurized milk is safe to drink, since the pasteurization process kills the virus. Officials warn against consuming raw milk or cheese made from raw milk.

The USDA is testing ground beef with PCR—polymerase chain reaction—a technology that can detect fragments of virus. Scientists are criticizing the USDA for waiting nearly a month before releasing critical data that would allow public health officials to craft a response.

The Good News:

Few People Are Getting Sick from Bird Flu:

As of today (May 2, 2024), only a handful of people are known for sure to have caught H5N1. Pasteurized milk is safe. There is no reason to cut back on dairy products unless they derive from raw milk.

What Needs to be Done Yesterday!

The CDC must step up its surveillance of farm workers immediately. That means widespread antibody testing of blood. We need to know how many workers have become infected. Close family members should also be tested to determine if there is person-to-person spread.

Four extremely knowledgeable scientists wrote a powerful article for STAT, May 1, 2024. It was titled:

“From sewage to safety: Hospital wastewater surveillance as a beacon for defense against H5N1 bird flu”

The authors “work on pandemic preparedness and response.” They call for wastewater surveillance of H5N1:

“…for early detection and monitoring of that threat on a large scale, yet it remains vastly under-leveraged for H5N1 at this precarious moment.”

Please note the words “precarious moment.” These are biologists, virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts. They do not use such words loosely.

They go on to say:

“We believe that more investment aimed at rapidly expanding the capabilities of wastewater surveillance is urgently needed for early detection and monitoring of a wider array of pathogens with pandemic potential than is currently under scrutiny. Wastewater surveillance is an ideal tool because of its low cost, ability to cover large populations, and capacity for early detection. In the short term, the responses of local, state, and national public health agencies should include immediate deployment of wastewater testing for H5N1.”

We completely agree. What about you? Please share your thoughts about getting sick from bird flu in the comment section below.

One final word of optimism. The CDC states that:

“Currently the neuraminidase inhibitor oseltamivir is recommended for antiviral treatment of people with confirmed or suspected A(H5N1) virus infection, and for post-exposure prophylaxis.”

Oseltamivir is the generic name for Tamiflu. If that drug sounds familiar, it should. Tamiflu is widely available to treat seasonal influenza. This oral medication can reduce the severity of a bad flu infection. If H5N1 starts showing up in people, Tamiflu should also reduce the risk of infection in people exposed to someone with the virus. You can read about the inside story of Tamiflu at this link.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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