Avian flu in Seattle mammals concerns health experts

After seals in Seattle's Puget Sound tested positive for H5N1 avian flu in late August, a researcher at the University of Washington Medical School is highlighting the unprecedented wave of cases in the last year and what that means for human health.

"It's really an unprecedented outbreak," Peter Rabinowitz, MD, a professor of family medicine and the director of UW's Center for One Health Research, which examines health links between humans and animals, stated in an Oct. 9 news release. "The number of countries involved, the number of different types of animals involved, both birds and mammals, is something we've absolutely never seen before."

The deadly H5N1 strain has a 50 percent mortality rate among humans and continues to spread globally with health officials watching closely as several cases have jumped from birds to mammals. Mammals, including humans, can become infected with the virus via direct contact, according to the CDC.

The threat of human infection remains low, but the jump to mammals signifies this strain is highly infectious and capable of evolving.

"Genetic data have revealed that when some mammals are infected with [Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza] H5N1 virus, the virus may undergo intra-host evolution resulting in genetic changes that allow the virus to replicate more efficiently in the lower respiratory tract," the CDC's website states. "Although these genetic changes may impact mammalian disease outcome, they have not been associated with enhanced transmissibility of the virus to humans."

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