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Bird Flu Threat Looms, US “Woefully Underprepared” Says Health Experts

Visual Representation for bird flu testing | Credits: Reuters

United States: The threat linked to Bird Flu, which is also known as Avian Flu, has been looming across the United States. Recently, the concern has increased and now the experts have issued a warning linked to the future bird flu outbreaks and preparedness of the US and its healthcare system.

Recently, health experts have mentioned that the US is “woefully underprepared” for an outbreak because of bird flu infection. The announcement was made by the authorities after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that another bird flu-linked human case had been reported in the US and also raised worries about the multistate outbreak in dairy cows, according to reports by Newsweek. 

Avian influenza, a virulent viral infection, predominantly afflicts avian species, both wild and domesticated. Yet, the pathogen responsible for this ailment has occasionally breached the species barrier, infecting other animals, including dairy cattle and, sporadically, humans.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued fresh directives to state and local health authorities, urging them to maintain heightened influenza monitoring systems throughout the summer. The objective is to promptly identify any further human infections with the H5N1 avian flu strain.

Nonetheless, Brian Castrucci, an esteemed epidemiologist and public health policy authority, voiced concerns to Newsweek regarding America’s readiness to confront a potential epidemic.

“The US remains inadequately prepared for avian influenza due to lessons unlearned from the COVID-19 pandemic,” remarked Castrucci, who serves as president and CEO of the public health nonprofit the de Beaumont Foundation. “Effective tracking of emerging infections hinges on robust reporting mechanisms, yet numerous obstacles impede this process.”

Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and science communication advisor for the de Beaumont Foundation, identified a significant hindrance: insufficient data.

“Indications are that the outbreaks began to surface late last year, implying that the full extent of the situation might not be apparent,” Rivera conveyed to Newsweek. “Moreover, there’s a trust deficit among farmers, who are hesitant to report illnesses and engage in testing due to concerns over documentation insecurity, language hurdles, and lack of sick leave.”

Overlooking the human element can result in underreporting of cases, thereby hampering surveillance efforts, as highlighted by Newsweek. 

“Pandemic readiness often focuses excessively on pathogens, neglecting the critical human factors,” Castrucci noted. “Federal policies must protect those individuals responsible for safeguarding public health.”

Castrucci advocated for federal legislation to institute emergency paid sick leave, immigration amnesty, and income assurance, which he deemed as vital as testing and surveillance in enhancing pandemic preparedness. Yet, these measures remain sidelined.

Further compounding this lack of readiness is the persistent understaffing in public health sectors, a lingering effect of the COVID-19 crisis.

“From 2017 to 2021, half of the public health workforce departed their roles,” Castrucci stated. “Staff are still recuperating from the stress and burnout induced by COVID-19. We require at least 80,000 additional public health workers nationwide just to meet basic service demands, with significantly more needed in the event of another widespread pandemic.”

Considering these challenges, what threat does avian influenza pose to the American populace?

“Presently, the risk to the general public is minimal,” Rivera explained, adding, “The few human cases involved direct contact with infected animals. To date, there has been no human-to-human transmission, which accounts for the low incidence of human infections. The USDA has assured that our food supplies, particularly pasteurized commercial milk, poultry, and meat, remain safe for consumption,” as per the reports by Newsweek. 

Rivera continued, “Individuals most at risk are those with occupational or recreational exposure to infected animals, particularly dairy cows. This group includes dairy farmers, farmworkers, and veterinarians dealing with ongoing outbreaks.”

To mitigate the risk of bird flu, it is advisable to avoid contact with wild birds, cattle, and other animals potentially exposed to the virus. “Additionally, avoid consuming raw or unpasteurized milk or products from animals suspected or confirmed to have bird flu,” Rivera advised.

While most human cases of avian flu have been mild, recent years have shown that such viruses can rapidly mutate.

“Influenza has a complex replication cycle across multiple species,” Carl Abraham, an assistant professor of medicine at the New York Institute of Technology, previously told Newsweek. “This process often leads to genetic reassortment between different strains within a single host.”

Abraham elaborated, “Most genetic reassortment events result in influenza viruses with reduced replication efficiency. However, rare events can enhance disease severity and transmission or enable infection of new species, as seen with cattle this year. A reassortment event could potentially enable avian influenza to infect humans more effectively.”

Should such a virus gain the capability for human-to-human transmission, it could precipitate a pandemic. Although this scenario is rare, it remains within the realm of possibility.

Castrucci underscored the necessity for policy reforms to bolster pandemic preparedness across the board.

“Pandemic threats are emerging with increasing frequency,” he stated. “In the aftermath of COVID-19, we’ve encountered Mpox and now H5N1. We must invest in policies, protocols, and practices to safeguard the nation’s health, security, and economic well-being.”

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