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  • Will Irvine

Bird Flu? Uh, Yeah, I Sure Hope it Does

WILL IRVINE (HE/HIM)


Here at Salient, we love birds. Forming the vast majority of Aotearoa’s endemic species, birds make up a significant part of our national identity, from the noble Kiwi to the pesky Weka. So devoted is our love for birds that we have included hidden birds in every single issue of Salient, finders of which can go in the draw to win a prize. Unfortunately, all is not well in bird world. A dark storm is brewing on the horizon, and birds across Aotearoa are bracing themselves for a bird-tastrophe of cataclysmic proportions. 


Here’s the long and short of it; a global bird flu pandemic has been spreading across the globe for about three years now, and it’s set to hit us very soon. Two different flu viruses are at work here. The H5N1 virus has been on the radar for a while, and has seen outbreaks since at least 2003. The H5N8 virus is less well-researched, but has seen rapid spread since 2021 and is likely to pose a significant threat to our wildlife.


The primary concern for Aotearoa at the moment is an outbreak among gentoo penguin populations in Antarctica, which has seen more than 200 chicks die before reaching maturity. Otago University virologist Professor Jemma Geoghegan told RNZ that the virus is “killing birds and other marine wildlife in unprecedented scales around the world”, and that “it could be catastrophic for many of the species that are sort of already tinkering on the brink of extinction”. 



The current bird flu pandemic has been ravaging birds across the globe for the past few years, although scientists are currently unsure when the outbreak first began. In the UK, the disease took root in seabirds, where it killed an approximate 75% of the great skua population and 25% of all gannets. Overall, although the UK’s outbreak appears to be calming down, more than 50,000 seabirds have perished to the disease that reportedly has a mortality rate of up to 60%. 


Notably, the H5N1 virus, one of the two which causes bird flu, has the ability to infect and kill mammals. In the South Georgia islands of Antarctica, RNZ reports hundreds of elephant seals dying after the disease was first reported in brown skua populations. 


The main problem with birds is that they can fly. This makes them a high risk of transmission, because flying is how things get places. Particularly, Aotearoa is home to a high population of migratory birds, including several which spend parts of the year in Antarctica. 


As a nation of birds, we have every right to be worried about bird flu. Our national symbol is in significant danger, and as governments around the world scramble to find a vaccine, there is every reason to feel worried. Avian flu is a disease that classically mutates into mammals, and in past outbreaks has demonstrated real capacity for human-to-human transmission. 


Although it’s a distant prospect at this stage, we must be conscious that we are facing one of the deadliest strains of bird flu to ever widely propagate. If human-to-human transmission occurs, we could see a serious threat to human life. Just last year in February, Cambodia reported the death of a young girl from H5N1. Whether or not she will be the last human casualty of this disease remains to be seen.


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