Cracking the code: A look at bird flu strains

April 19, 2017

H5N1, H7N3, H7N9, H5N2, H7N8.

What do these mysterious series of letters and numbers mean, and why should we pay attention to them?

Some of these numbers might ring a bell if you pay close attention to the news. All of the above are strains of avian influenza, otherwise known as bird flu. H5N1 is one of the most famous strains, coming into prominence in 2003 after multiple East and Southeast Asian countries reported outbreaks.

Since then, over 600 people and countless birds have been infected with the illness. Human deaths number in the hundreds worldwide.

H5N1 and its cohorts are the new reality for the poultry industry, thanks to the rapid increase of the global poultry population. More birds mean more chances for disease to spread.

“This is the new world we actually live in,” said Chad Gregory, CEO and president of United Egg Producers, according to Watt AgNet. “It is something we will have to learn to live with, forever.”

While bird flu has the ability to infect people, agencies worldwide, such as the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, work to control the virus so that it does not threaten human health. These agencies do this through routine inspection and if necessary, depopulation of infected flocks.

What are some of the most common strains?

H5N1: As with other strains, the “H” in its name stands for hemagglutinin and “N” stands for neuraminidase, two proteins on the virus itself. In the early 2000s, this strain ran rampant in Asia. News coverage of the situation introduced many consumers to bird flu for the first time. Infected humans suffer from a high fever and cough, as well as difficulty breathing, diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Up to 60% of humans infected don’t survive.

H7N9: For many years, this strain was not known to infect humans. However, in 2013, several people were found to be killed by the virus in China, and several more were infected. This year, there have been a few small outbreaks of this strain in the United States.

H7N3: This is a high pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus. Some of the most famous outbreaks of this strain include a 2004 outbreak in British Columbia, and a 2012 outbreak in Mexico that led to a shortage of eggs.

H5N2: Another HPAI virus, this strain does not cause significant health effects in humans. There is also no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

H7N8: This newly-discovered strain has been declared low-pathogenic. No cases of human infection have ever been documented.

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Category: Animal Safety, Healthcare, Poultry, Public Health, Animal Health, Sanitation & Hygiene