It is highly unlikely that the avian influenza currently decimating bird populations in Israel’s north will turn into a human pandemic to rival COVID, experts say, but it is still a possibility that must be prepared for by government and public health authorities.
Over the past several days, thousands of wild cranes have died of bird flu and over half-a-million infected chickens have been preemptively culled by farmers in what Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg has called “the worst blow to wildlife in the country's history.”
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Rangers in hazmat suits have collected thousands of crane carcasses along one of the world's major bird migration routes while Israeli farmers have begun the long and arduous process of sanitizing their coops, which can take months and will affect the egg supply going forward.
“The risk is always there and is always substantial and as long as humans are in close contact with birds. Then the risk of an event during which high pathogenic avian flu will infect a human and will become transmissible between humans is always possible,” said Prof. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.
However, such a scenario would require a person already infected with human influenza to also contact the avian virus, which would either mutate or recombine with the human variant to create a version which is transmissible between humans, something which is currently almost unheard of.
“Now when humans get infected with bird flu they do not transmit it to other humans,” he said.
And while the lethality rate among humans who contact the virus is “pretty high,” the primary risk at the moment comes from direct contact between humans and infected birds, said Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.
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The chances of a person catching the avian flu while also infected with the human virus is a “real concern that needs to be mitigated,” and now, with the advent of flu season, this “theoretical possibility” is certainly one which requires the attention of public health authorities in order to minimize the risk.
Nevertheless, Levine stated, at the moment, while the chance of avian influenza being transmitted person-to-person is not zero, “the virus usually does not spread to other people.”
Most, but not all, cases of people getting infected are restricted to countries in East Asia where people live in close proximity to poultry, said Dr. Nathan Elkin, an expert on poultry diseases.
“Before the coronavirus, the fear from a pandemic was a pandemic of avian influenza. The fear was that the virus of avian influenza would mutate and become transmissible from one human to another.“
“It can happen. The possibility is not just a theoretical possibility. Viruses, especially influenza viruses, can mutate very rapidly. So it can happen. That’s why we must be careful [but] not hysterical,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone should panic about it because bird flu has been around for a long time in various locations and has not yet turned into a pandemic, highly pathogenic influenza,” agreed Leshem. “But the public should certainly monitor that policymakers and the government are taking the necessary steps” to prevent it from becoming one.