Yes, a vaccine against avian influenza H5N1 for humans *exists,* but it’s not available, as at this point the infection isn’t spreading among humans.
Right now there is a large outbreak of an influenza virus in birds known as avian influenza H5N1. Experts agree that there is very little risk to humans. And they also agree that it’s worth keeping an eye on the situation because it could change rapidly and dramatically.
More than 58 million poultry have died in the U.S. as of Feb 2023, and many millions more have died worldwide. One very important step you can take to protect yourself and others today is to get your regular flu shot . This won’t protect you from avian flu, but it will protect you from getting both avian flu and a typical seasonal flu simultaneously. Read on for why this is important.
Other steps you can take now include:
Keep your distance from wild birds.
Handle pet birds, backyard chickens, and any other bird you might encounter with extreme caution. In fact, CDC’s words are: “Bird owners should practice good biosecurity.”
Do not handle any sick or dead bird you find without wearing gloves and a respirator mask. You should also wash your clothing immediately after such an encounter. If you find a sick or dead bird in the wild or at home, call the professionals at 1-866-536-7593 for advice about what to do with it. Public health authorities may want to test it for infection.
If you work with birds, read up on extra precautions you need to take, like wearing a respirator mask.
Note that avian influenza, like all other influenza viruses, is a respiratory virus. That means you catch it by breathing in viral particles. Not by eating it. Experts say it is perfectly safe to eat commercially raised chicken and eggs (and turkey, duck, etc). (But you should cook your food properly, like usual.)
As background, avian influenza is a type of influenza or flu virus that can infect wild birds and livestock poultry (like chickens and turkeys). This avian influenza virus causes death in 90-100% of infected chickens. Scientists think it’s mostly spread by infected wild birds, especially ducks, who for some reason carry it asymptomatically. It spreads easily from bird to bird, and it can wipe out a commercial flock within a couple of days, especially in crowded poultry farms. However, not all of those 58 million U.S. chickens have died of bird flu. Poultry farms are also culling chickens to prevent the spread of this virus. Have you noticed that the price of eggs has gone way, way up? That’s because of the chicken… situation. According to NPR, two massive egg farms in Iowa culled more than 5 million birds early in 2023.
Non-bird animals don’t usually catch avian influenza, but it is possible. There have been a few cases of H5N1 infections in humans, including one case in the U.S. in 2022. A child in Cambodia died of avian flu in February 2023, although scientists say she had a different strain than the one that is circulating among birds worldwide. A few confirmed H5N1 infections have also been found in foxes, seals, mink, dolphins, and other non-bird animals since this outbreak started.
So far, avian flu has not developed the ability to spread from human to human. Whenever a human has caught it, they got it from a bird–and the infection spread no further.
Getting a seasonal flu shot won’t protect you from avian influenza, but it will protect you from typical seasonal human influenza viruses, which *do* have the ability to spread from human to human. And that means you’re less likely to get infected with both at once. If that happened, the two different flu viruses replicating in the same person could lead to a new hybrid of them both–a highly pathogenic new flu strain that has the capacity to spread from human-to-human. In other words, a pandemic scenario.
So for now, keep calm and carry on. And get your (regular) flu shots every year. And stay away from birds as much as possible.
Stay safe, stay well.
Those Nerdy Girls
More on avian influenza vaccines for humans
CDC’s situation report on avian influenza (updated frequently)
USDA on avian influenza in the U.S. poultry population
Taubenberger and Morens article on the history (and future) of influenza pandemics