I am going to return to the topic of biosecurity and disease spread today and focus on the unfortunate news that India has joined a small group of countries that have reported human deaths due to avian influenza (AI).

The latest to die from an avian influenza H5N1 infection was an 11-year-old boy. He was admitted to hospital in early July and died from failure of multiple organs. His family, according to Reuters, were kept in isolation and authorities launched contact tracing.

There have been no suspected cases of the disease in the boy’s home state of Haryana.

Prior to this latest death in India, 17 countries had reported human infections with avian influenza between 2003 and July this year. Of the total of 862 cases, 455 were fatal, the last being in Lao People’s Democratic Republic in October last year.

More deaths this year

While deaths from the disease, thankfully, remain rare, this does not mean that the virus is not infecting people. In its latest weekly report on AI, the World Health Organization points to three human infections in China that were brought to its attention between July 16th and 22nd.

Unlike the boy in India, all three of these Chinese citizens were farmers with exposure to backyard poultry. Two died and one was said to be in a critical condition.

There may, at least, be some good news where human avian influenza infections are concerned. World Health Organization data reveals that between 2003 and 2009 there were 282 deaths spread across 17 countries. For the period 2010 to 2014, the number fell to 125 with deaths occurring in only 7 countries. 2015-2019 saw the numbers decline further still, with five countries reporting 48 deaths. No deaths were reported in 2020, with only one person recorded as having been infected.

That the number of infections and deaths has been declining over the last two decades is good news. What is not so positive is that the number of countries to record a death has now risen to 18, and that 2021 has recorded a number of deaths when 2020 was fatality-free.

While numerous guidelines and practices exist to protect poultry workers form the virus in the regulated industry, it is hard, if not impossible, to apply them where owners of backyard flocks are concerned, or where people come into contact with birds in rural, live bird markets, for example. Yet we are all now familiar with how human animal interactions in these settings can lead to viruses jumping species.  

AI has serious consequences for both livelihoods and trade, and most reports tend to focus on these aspects of the disease. While the disease has not progressed in humans in the way that was once feared, we ignore the dangers of diseases jumping species at our peril, and need to be constantly aware of their ability to do so, doing our utmost to prevent them doing so.