April 16, 2022, 10:30 AM CEST
By Aria Bendix
A highly contagious bird flu has spread across more than 30 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This week alone, the strain, known as H5N1, likely killed hundreds of birds at a lake northwest of Chicago, and at least three bald eagles in Georgia. Two cases of H5N1 were also found in birds at U.S. zoos.
Since January, the USDA has detected H5N1 among tens of millions of wild birds and domestic and commercial flocks, predominantly in the South, Midwest and the East Coast. Nearly 27 million chickens and turkeys have been killed to prevent the virus's spread.
So far, no cases have been reported among people in the U.S., and the risk to public health is low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just one recent human infection has been documented: a person in England who raised birds got sick. That case, reported in January, was asymptomatic.
But the bird flu outbreak is affecting consumers' lives in the form of rising egg and poultry prices. The average weekly price for large eggs is up 44 percent compared with this time last year, the USDA reported Monday. Wholesale poultry prices rose 4 percent in February, and the USDA predicts they could climb between 9 and 12 percent in 2022.
Over time, it's possible that a small number of people could contract the virus. Past versions of H5N1 flu infected 864 people between 2003 and 2021, according to the World Health Organization. About half of those cases were fatal.
"Sporadic human infections with current H5N1 bird flu viruses would not be surprising, especially among people with exposures who may not be taking recommended precautions," the CDC says on its website.
But Andrew Bowman, an associate professor at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said he'd be surprised to see this particular bird flu spill over into people on a large scale. Ancestors of this virus have been circulating in other parts of the world for a while, he said, and people have been relatively spared.
"The current lineage we’re seeing is really not fit to go into mammalian hosts, so it’s got to be pretty unlikely," Bowman said.
If a person does get infected, disease experts should be able to quickly test them, he added.
"We have a lot of watchful eyes around people working in poultry facilities, especially if they’re involved in a flock that becomes infected," Bowman said.