Avian Flu Outbreak in the U.S.: What to Know Right Now

Chickens seen on a farm.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • The United States confirmed its first case of avian flu in January after a wild South Carolina duck tested positive for the virus.
  • Experts found the H5N1 Eurasian strain, a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus type. The same strain had caused a wave of bird flu outbreaks across Europe and Asia.
  • U.S. bird flu cases continue to rise as the H5N1 strain makes its way across the States.
  • While current evidence suggests H5N1 to be low risk to people, experts say human transmission may cause severe symptoms.

As COVID-19 cases appear to be waning in the United States, experts are cautiously watching the rise of bird flu cases in multiple states.

In January, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) detected the first U.S. bird flu case after a hunted wild bird tested positive for the virus in Colleton County, South Carolina.

Experts reported that it was the H5N1 strain, a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAI) — the same strain responsible for fatal poultry outbreaks across Europe and Asia in late 2021.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, wild birds usually transmit the flu to each other through direct contact. While wild birds will show no signs of illness if they contract the flu, bird flu can be fatal to poultry.

There are currently no human cases of this avian flu in the United States, but it could still have an impact.

Reported outbreaks across the States

In recent weeks following earlier detection, federal officials identified new cases among wild bird populations in Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, and New Hampshire, as well as poultry operations in Kentucky and Virginia.

Some backyard flocks in different states including Maine and New York also had the flu.

The USDA confirmed these cases after farm officials euthanized 29,000 turkeys in southern Indiana, in what was the nation’s first confirmed case of H5N1 in commercial poultry operations since 2020.

Federal and state officials are taking steps with poultry farmers to increase biosecurity and prevent new cases. However, this raises concerns about why the bird flu is rising across the States.

“We are not sure how this bird flu strain entered the United States. It could have been imported several times, setting up focal areas of infection in different states,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Now within the U.S., the concern is that this bird flu could spread more widely, transmitted by migrating wild birds that can mingle with domestic flocks of chickens, ducks, and turkeys.”

Experts say the bird flu is an infectious disease, particularly within different bird populations.

“It is influenza season and not a surprise that some flocks are infected with influenza. It may have spread to other areas but has not yet been tested or identified,” said Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

“Indiana borders Kentucky, so one might hypothesize that regional spread is possible, but this does not explain why in Virginia,” Fichtenbaum added.

However, Fichtenbaum recommends further surveillance monitoring to accurately determine the spread’s cause.

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