Right now, a wave of bird flu is sweeping through Asia and Europe. In fact, the United Kingdom is in the midst of its largest bird flu outbreak, with new cases of the H5N1 strain in captive birds reported almost daily. Hundreds of millions of birds have been killed to stop the spread, but the outbreak also poses a growing risk to humans.
What It Is
Bird flu—also known as avian flu or avian influenza—is an illness that spreads easily among birds. The H5N1 virus is particularly contagious and has run rampant in factory farms, where chickens, turkeys, and other birds are forced to live practically on top of one another.
While this aggressive virus primarily impacts birds, H5N1 can infect other animals. According to the World Health Organization, 863 cases of H5N1 in humans were reported from January 2001 to December 2021. Spread across 18 countries, these infections have caused a terrifyingly high number of deaths. Of the 863 cases, 456 were fatal—this means that more than half of people infected with avian flu during these years died.
While most cases resulted from human slaughter, handling, or consumption of infected birds, some arose through person-to-person contact.
What This Means
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) stated that the risk of the new wave of bird flu spreading to humans is greater than for earlier outbreaks because of the many viral variants. OIE’s director general, Monique Eloit, explained in an interview:
This time the situation is more difficult and more risky because we see more variants emerge, which make them harder to follow. Eventually the risk is that it mutates or that it mixes with a human flu virus that can be transmitted between humans then suddenly it takes on a new dimension.
While wild birds can spread the illness, the greatest risk is clear: industrial animal farming. Factory farms house tens of thousands of birds at once, creating the perfect environment for viruses like H5N1 to spread and mutate.
What We Can Do
We can all fight this frightening illness by refusing to support the animal agriculture industry. The meat industry has shown during the COVID-19 pandemic that it values profit over human lives. Download our free veg starter guide to start working toward a kinder, safer food system today.