H5N1 bird flu

News Excerpt: 

A highly pathogenic type of bird flu, H5N1, has been spreading across the globe, posing an existential threat to birds and wildlife.

About Bird Flu: 

  • Bird flu, also known as avian flu, is an infectious viral illness primarily affecting poultry and some wild birds. It spreads among birds, including ducks and geese, with various strains circulating among them for a long time without significant harm. 
  • Occasionally, the virus transfers from wild birds to poultry farms, where it replicates in crowded conditions, evolving into highly pathogenic forms causing widespread illness and death in birds.
  • The currently circulating type of H5N1 is one such highly pathogenic flu virus. It has “descended from a virus that caused an outbreak on a goose farm in Guangdong, China, in 1996.
    •  That virus — one of a type of virus known as H5N1 — was highly pathogenic and killed more than 40 percent of the farm birds it infected,” 
  • A new variant of H5N1 emerged in Europe in 2020, quickly spreading to Europe, Africa, and Asia, and eventually reaching North and South America by 2022 and 2024, respectively.

How has H5N1 impacted animals across the world?

  • Apart from the farm birds, the virus has severely impacted wild birds. 
    • “First, Great Skuas began dying across islands in Scotland in summer 2021,”   
    • On the Solway Firth, bird flu killed a third of the Svalbard breeding population of Barnacle Geese – at least 13,200 birds. 
    • Greenland Barnacle Geese died on Islay, as well as hundreds of ducks, swans, gulls and other geese species
    • Birds of prey such as Peregrine Falcon, Hen Harrier, Buzzard, White-tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle have also been testing positive.
  • Endangered Species: 
    • The endangered species California condors have died from the virus in 2023 alone, which is nearly 6 percent of the population of the roughly 330 birds that were believed to live in the wild as of the end of 2021
  • The biggest concern is the spread of the virus among mammals,
    • Outbreaks among foxes, pumas, skunks, and both black and brown bears in North America have been reported. 
    • In Spain and Finland, farmed minks have been infected. 
  • “This is especially dangerous because these small mammals which, like poultry, are kept in filthy, overcrowded and unhealthy conditions  provide ample opportunities for viral reassortment so it can easily begin to infect other mammals. 
  • Marine Mammals: 
    • Marine mammals have been particularly hard-hit, with over 20,000 sea lions and several dolphins dying in Chile and Peru. 
    • Seal deaths have been reported on the east and west coasts of the US, with thousands of elephant seals killed in Argentina.
  • Southern Elephant Seals
    • In a concerning development, more than 95% of Southern elephant seal pups born along the Patagonian coastline died by the end of 2023, 
    • Marking a significant event not seen in the area for the last half-century.
  • Human Risk: 
    • While humans rarely contract bird flu, those at risk are typically individuals who come into contact with large numbers of sick birds on poultry farms, where there is a significant viral load.

What’s behind the large-scale spread?

  • The exact factors behind the large outbreaks of the bird flu are still largely unknown. Some scientists, however, suggest that one reason could be climate change.
  • soaring global temperatures impact the behavior of birds in such a way that it exacerbates the spread of the flu. 
    • These birds are forced to move into new territories and mix with species that they usually don’t interact with, which possibly boosts the chances for the virus to spread even further.
  • There may also be an impact from higher sea surface temperatures. 
    • For example, warmer sea temperatures near northern Chile have led to a fall in the forage fish population and that has made sea lions weaker and more susceptible to disease.

Avian Influenza in India:

  • Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), also called Bird Flu, was first detected in India in the state of Maharashtra in February 2006
    • Since then, there have been annual outbreaks of HPAI in different regions of the country, which have led to substantial economic losses.
  • The disease has been reported in 24 states and union territories, resulting in the culling of over 9 million birds to control its spread.
  • India's approach to controlling HPAI follows a "detect and cull" policy as outlined in the National Action Plan for Prevention, Control, and Containment of Avian Influenza (revised - 2021).
  • This comprehensive response includes the humane destruction of infected and exposed animals, eggs, feed, litter, and other contaminated materials.
  • Moreover, actions like limiting the transport of poultry and poultry goods, sanitizing and clearing infected locations, and enforcing a Postoperative Surveillance Plan (POSP) have been put into effect.
  • Besides this, as per the government, in a report released in 2023, vaccination against HPAI is prohibited in India. 

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