Emmanuel The Emu Has Bird Flu And Experts Were Not Happy With How The Owner Handled It

Emmanuel The Emu Has Bird Flu And Experts Were Not Happy With How The Owner Handled It

Douglas Reed, an associate professor of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who studies avian influenza, told us that H5N1 viruses — the strain that’s currently circulating in US wild birds and poultry — “have been on our radar for a long time as a potential pandemic virus.”

Close contact with sick birds in the way that Blake is handling Emmanuel is not recommended.

“Fortunately there has been no sustained human-to-human transmission, but with every exposure we risk that the virus could adapt to spread more easily human-to-human,” Reed wrote in an email. “Handling or close contact with infected animals without use of appropriate personal protective equipment accentuates that risk, as we do not have a good understanding of how avian influenza viruses transmit from birds to humans.

“Of course, I also feel compassion for the individuals involved in this particular story; it is heartbreaking to have a pet become ill and potentially die (or need to be euthanized) from a serious disease,” Reed continued. “But in this instance the risks to the humans involved, and to the rest of us, also has to be weighed.”

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen, author and homesteader at Hostile Valley Farm in Maine, said she feels Blake’s attempts to save Emmanuel are “unforgivably selfish” due to the extremely contagious nature of the virus. As someone who had to cull her own flock this spring because of avian influenza, Lie-Nielsen feels it’s not fair to risk the virus spreading to other farms just because of one emu.

“This virus is highly contagious within poultry, and can be spread by wild birds that stop by Emmanuel’s farm or by visitors to the farm on their boots or clothes. That puts other people’s flocks at risk,” Lie-Nielsen wrote in an email. “I completely understand Blake’s adoration for her bird. I adored my birds. My heart goes out to her. But there is no good reason why Emmanuel gets to ‘recover’ when others have lost their friends forever — and his recovery puts even more birds at risk.

“And that is to say nothing of poultry farms affected where a family’s entire livelihood is destroyed,” she wrote. “Why is Emmanuel different?”

Poultry infected with bird flu are usually culled (euthanized) to prevent further spread, the CDC says, but Reed said it’s possible an exception was made in Blake’s case because it appears Emmanuel was isolated from other birds “and was not a (literal) flight risk.” Still, he said “it’s rather extraordinary that culling didn’t happen in this case.”

It’s also “unusual” for a bird to survive H5N1 infection, Reed said. “Because they’re typically culled, I don’t know how soon a bird would be considered ‘cured’ (virus negative).” One 2010 study found that H5N1 persisted in duck feathers for as long as 5 months.

But “how long it is until the animal is truly virus free,” Reed said, “we don’t yet know.”

How bird flu spreads and what to know about your personal risk at this time

People can contract bird flu by touching their mouth, eyes, or nose after prolonged, close, and unprotected contact with infected birds’ saliva, feces, or bodily fluids, according to the CDC. The virus can also become aerosolized in droplets or dust, so it’s possible to get infected via inhalation, as well.

Not everyone who gets infected experiences symptoms, but those who do may feel mild illness, such as sore throat, eye redness, runny nose, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. More serious conditions are possible, too, like pneumonia, that require hospitalization. Fever is not guaranteed; meanwhile, other less common symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, or seizures.

Person-to-person spread is incredibly rare, the CDC says, but even when it has happened, it hasn’t led to further spread among people. Since 2003, 19 countries have reported “rare, sporadic human infections” with H5N1 bird flu viruses, but no known events have occurred with the H5N1 virus circulating in US birds at this time.

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