Ashton Vongxay/Staff reporter

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been the focus of the last two years, it was not the first deadly virus to originate in Asia. H5N1, also known as bird flu, has been reported in over 15 countries since 2003. While human transmission is rare, it has infected over 700 people with a 60% mortality rate.

Compared to COVID-19’s millions of victims, H5N1 was relatively small. This was partly due to the nature of transmission, as most cases come from contact with infected poultry. The influenza led to the culling of millions of birds in an attempt to control the spread. Most cases of H5N1 are in children and adults younger than 40 years of age. The virus’s survival rate was only 40%, and those aged 10-19 had the worst chance to survive. Catching H5N1 causes pneumonia and, in most cases, respiratory failure and death.

Should you worry about catching bird flu? H5N1 infections in humans typically align with the seasonal outbreaks in poultry. H5N1 does not efficiently transfer from human to human, but human to human infections have likely occurred. Most human transmission cases are small clusters of blood relatives. The clusters of transmission were typically two to eight people in size. In 2006 in Indonesia, someone contracted the virus from infected poultry and infected eight blood family members. All the cases have evidence of close human-to-human contact, where it was unlikely they all got infected by poultry. Human transmission has occurred in multiple countries worldwide, including Thailand, China, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

Though H5N1 does not spread easily among humans, COVID-19 has shown that viruses can mutate into different, more effective strains. If a virus with a mortality rate as high as H5N1 were to mutate to a strain that could easily transmit from human to human, we would see devastation to a degree we have never seen before. Governments have recognized the potential threats of H5N1. They have been working on vaccination programs to protect the world from another catastrophic pandemic. Now the question is, how many other influenzas exist that are more deadly than COVID-19, and are we prepared?

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