“Experts Freaking Out About Birds Giving Us the Flu”

The ongoing global spread of “bird flu” infections to mammals including humans is a significant public health concern, senior UN medics said on Thursday, as they announced new measures to tackle airborne diseases.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the avian influenza virus – which is also known as H5N1 – has had an “extremely high” mortality rate among the several hundred people known to have been infected with it to date.

To date, no human-to-human H5N1 transmission has been recorded.

“H5M1 is (an) influenza infection, predominantly started in poultry and ducks and has spread effectively over the course of the last one or two years to become a global zoonotic – animal – pandemic,” he said. 

“The great concern, of course, is that in doing so and infecting ducks and chickens – but now increasingly mammals – that that virus now evolves and develops the ability to infect humans. And then critically, the ability to go from human-to-human transmission.”

Cattle mystery

Commenting on an ongoing outbreak of H5N1 virus among dairy cows in the United States, the WHO senior official urged further close monitoring and investigation by public health authorities, “because it may evolve into transmitting in different ways”.

Unsplash/Donald Giannatti

Cows graze near a drilling rig in Texas, USA.

He added: “Do the milking structures of cows create aerosols? Is it the environment which they’re living in? Is it the transport system that is spreading this around the country? This is a huge concern and I think we have to … make sure that if H5N1 did come across to humans with human-to-human transmission, that we were in a position to immediately respond with access equitably to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.”

Equal to next pandemic

The development comes as the WHO announced updated language to describe airborne pathogens, in a bid to increase international cooperation in the event of a new – and expected – global pandemic.

The initiative was originally sparked by the COVID-19 emergency and the recognition that there was a lack of commonly agreed terms among medics and scientists to describe how the coronavirus was transmitted, which increased the challenge of overcoming it, Dr Farrar explained.

Global appeal

To counter this, the WHO led consultations with four major public health agencies from Africa, China, Europe and the United States, before announcing agreement on a number of agreed new terms. These include “infectious respiratory particles” or “IRPs”, which should be used instead of “aerosols” and “droplets”, to avoid any confusion about the size of the particles involved.

Over and above the new terminology, the initiative cements the commitment of the international community to tackle ever “more complex and more frequent epidemics and pandemics”, Dr Farrar told journalists in Geneva.

“It’s a hugely important first step. But next, we need to keep the disciplines, the experts together. 

“We’re using the same terminology, the same language, and now we need to do the science that provides the evidence on tuberculosis, on COVID and other respiratory pathogens, so that we know how to control those infections better than we have done in the past.” 

On the potential HN51 public health risk, the WHO Chief Scientist cautioned that vaccine development was not “where we need to be”. Neither was it the case that regional offices and country offices and public health authorities around the world have the capability to diagnose H5N1, he noted.



  1. Do the new measures announced by senior UN medics include specific protocols for preventing potential human-to-human transmission of the avian influenza virus?

    1. Yes, the new measures announced do address the potential human-to-human transmission of the avian influenza virus. Dr. Farrar highlighted the importance of monitoring and investigating to prevent further spread among mammals and eventually to humans.

  2. As a senior UN medic, I’m truly concerned about the potential spread of avian influenza to humans. The highly infectious nature of the H5N1 virus in mammals, particularly birds and now cows, poses a serious public health risk. It is vital that proactive measures are taken to prevent any potential human-to-human transmission, as this could lead to a devastating global pandemic.

  3. Is there any information on how the avian influenza virus initially jumps from birds to humans? What are the key preventive measures being taken to prevent such spillover events?

    1. As the avian influenza virus, also known as H5N1, continues to pose a threat to public health, understanding the mechanism of transmission from birds to humans is crucial. Monitoring and analyzing the genetic changes in the virus are key to preventing potential spillover events. Implementing strict biosecurity measures in poultry farms and conducting regular surveillance can help mitigate the risk of zoonotic transmission. Collaborative efforts between health authorities and veterinary agencies are essential in addressing this pressing issue.

  4. As a healthcare professional, I fully support the urgency of addressing the potential threat of avian influenza transmission to humans. It is crucial that we implement strict measures to prevent the spread of this virus and protect public health.

  5. Do the new measures mentioned in the article include specific actions to prevent the transmission of avian influenza from humans to humans?

    1. Yes, the new measures highlighted in the article focus on preventing the transmission of avian influenza from humans to humans. The WHO is prioritizing close monitoring and investigating potential avenues of transmission to mitigate the risks of human-to-human spreading of the virus.

  6. I believe that it’s crucial for global health organizations and governments to take prompt action in closely monitoring and addressing the spread of bird flu to prevent potential outbreaks and protect public health. The possibility of the virus evolving to infect humans and achieve human-to-human transmission is alarming, emphasizing the need for vigilant surveillance and preventative measures.

  7. As an epidemiologist, I understand the severity of the situation. The potential for the H5N1 virus to evolve and develop human-to-human transmission capabilities is alarming. Close monitoring and swift action are crucial in preventing a major public health crisis.

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