First human death from H5N2 bird flu: Why are the experts concerned?

8 Jun 2024

The man, who died on April 24, had no history of exposure to poultry or other animals, raising significant concerns about the virus’s transmission. Here is a look at why the incident has raised an alarm among experts.

H5N2 bird flu - Figure 1
Photo The Indian Express
But first, what is avian influenza?

Avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, is a viral infection that primarily affects birds. However, certain subtypes of the virus can infect humans, leading to severe respiratory illnesses. The most notable of these subtypes is H5N1, which has been responsible for numerous human infections and fatalities in the past.

Symptoms of avian influenza in humans are similar to those of regular flu and can include: Fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, and severe respiratory distress in advanced cases

Why is the Mexico death a concern?

The recent case in Mexico is particularly concerning because the victim had no known exposure to infected animals, indicating a potential shift in the virus’s ability to infect humans without direct contact with poultry.

This indicates that the virus can infect humans without the traditional route of transmission through poultry exposure. Avian influenza primarily affects birds, but certain strains, such as H5N1, can infect humans and cause severe respiratory illnesses.

Avian influenza is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can spread from animals to humans. The global nature of the poultry industry and international travel means that outbreaks can quickly become international public health emergencies.

While human cases of avian influenza are rare, the potential for the virus to adapt and spread among humans is a serious public health concern. It indicates a new level of transmission or virulence of the virus that was not previously observed in the region.

What are the previous instances of bird flu in humans?

Human infections with avian influenza viruses are not unprecedented. The H5N1 subtype, in particular, has caused human fatalities since it was first identified in humans in 1997. However, each new case, especially one without direct animal contact, underscores the importance of continuous monitoring and preparedness.

How has the WHO responded?

The WHO has emphasized the need for heightened vigilance and preventive measures to reduce the risk of infection. Key recommendations include: avoiding contact with sick or dead birds; ensuring poultry products are thoroughly cooked; and implementing robust surveillance systems to detect and respond to new cases promptly.

The Mexico case serves as a reminder of the ongoing need for global health systems to remain alert to the threats posed by zoonotic diseases and to ensure rapid response mechanisms are in place to prevent widespread outbreaks.

The author is an intern with The Indian Express.

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