Courtesy of Daniella Garcia-Loos Almeida

November 20, 2022

Amid Avian Flu Rise, Concern for Human Transmission Remains Low

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Humans are not the only species experiencing a strong flu season right now. The United States is reaching record high numbers of avian influenza outbreaks, according to the Center for Disease Control. Wild birds and poultry are seeing the highest impact, with almost 50 million dead as a result of avian flu in 2022. 

The avian flu has been around for years, with the last H5N1 outbreak happening in 2015. This highly transmittable strain was first detected in February 2022, affecting birds of all species, including waterfowl, poultry and other domesticated birds. 

The CDC recommends that those who interact with birds regularly wear protective equipment and follow general precautions, even if a bird does not appear sick. However, according to Cornell experts, students should not be at all concerned about human transmission. 

“Avian influenza viruses should not affect the student population. We do have zoonotic highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses such as H5N1 and H7N9 that have caused the death of about 1300 humans worldwide mostly in Asia and Egypt since 1997,” said Senior Extension Associate of the Poultry Extension at the Cornell Animal Health Diagnostic Lab Prof. Jarra Jagne, public and ecosystem health. “The current global outbreak in chickens [H5N1] has caused a few infections worldwide but no deaths. In the U.S., antibodies were found in the serum of a man in Colorado who was helping to cull infected chickens. Infection with avian influenza requires very close contact with infected chickens.” 

According to the CDC, infected birds can spread the virus to other birds through saliva, feces and other secretions, or by contacting surfaces touched by other infected birds, such as a bird feeder. Although human infections are unlikely, the virus could potentially spread through direct, unprotected contact with an infected bird. 

“There is limited known risk to humans from the current avian influenza circulating in domestic and wild birds,” said Gavin Hitchener, laboratory director of the Duck Research Laboratory. “Precautions should still be taken, such as avoiding contact with sick wildlife and domestic poultry and use of appropriate PPE despite this limited risk.” 

Students still have a reason to be concerned about impacts of the avian flu that have become even more apparent during the holiday season. Egg prices, poultry prices and even turkey prices have risen dramatically. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, egg prices rose by 10 percent in October — the largest monthly increase of any grocery item, according to the consumer price index. 

Many egg-laying hens have fallen ill due to H5N1, which has an almost certain mortality rate, resulting in a lower supply of eggs. In October 2021, egg prices averaged around $1.82, but as of October 2022, they average around $3.42 — an 88 percent increase — and even higher in the Ithaca area. 

While a $1.60 difference may not seem like much, turkey prices have also seen a staggering increase, potentially affecting Thanksgiving plans for many people. Even turkeys are 23 percent more expensive compared to last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. 

“CDC continues to monitor the current situation and risk to the general public,” said CDC, in a spotlight published on Nov. 3. “It is important for people to continue taking precautions around infected and potentially infected birds [and] poultry to help reduce the risk of bird flu virus infections in people.”