Avian Influenza H5N1: What You Should Know About the Current US Outbreak

As a lifelong Midwesterner, I’m accustomed to the short-lived, false springs of January and February. I know to save gleeful cries of “spring is here!” until the trees bud and I can hear the buzzing trill of red-winged blackbirds and the calls of other birds returning from their winter homes. But this spring, the return of birdsong is not all good news.

In January 2022, the state of South Carolina reported a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a wild bird—the first detected case of this virus subtype in the United States since 2016. Since then, the outbreak has spread. Two weeks ago my home state of Wisconsin reported its first case in a commercial chicken flock of nearly 3 million birds, one of the largest US flocks affected so far.

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H7N9 Influenza Virus: A Perfect Pathogen?

Artist’s rendition of a virus particle.

It’s late October and here in Wisconsin, like many of you, we are experiencing a change of seasons, with the associated drop in temperatures, changes in leaf color and later this week, Halloween.

Another thing that comes with fall is the start of cold and flu season. By “flu”, I mean influenza, caused by avian influenza viruses of the H-N type. Recent research results by teams at UWI-Madison and in Japan, makes the coming influenza season potentially more scary than usual.

In a recent Cell Host & Microbe paper, M. Imai et al. study a seemingly more virulent version of H7N9 avian influenza virus that is startling in its ability to spread from infected to healthy animal models. Based on a current epidemic of H7N9, human-to-human transmission with this strain is increasing.

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