The recent outbreak of bird flu in the United States has not only impacted hunters and farmers but also poses a risk to city dwellers, especially those with pets, according to scientists. A community science project known as the New York City Virus Hunters (NYCVH) Program conducted research that revealed the presence of a highly contagious strain of avian influenza in birds flying through New York City. The study, conducted between 2022 and 2023, involved collecting 1,927 bird poop samples from various urban parks, green spaces, and animal rehabilitation centers. Out of the samples collected, six birds, including a red-tailed hawk, three Canada geese, a peregrine falcon, and a chicken, tested positive for the virus.

While the presence of bird flu in New York City may pose a low risk to humans and pets, caution is still advised. Microbiologist Christine Marizzi from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai emphasizes the importance of staying alert and avoiding close contact with wildlife, including preventing pets from interacting with wild animals. New York City’s location along the migratory path of wild birds increases the likelihood of an urban animal-human interface, potentially exposing the public to circulating infectious diseases without their awareness.

Although no human cases of bird flu have been reported in New York City, a recent case in Texas highlighted the risk of mammal-to-human transmission. A farm worker fell ill after contracting the virus from a sick cow, marking a rare instance of mammalian transmission of avian influenza. The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges the limited number of human cases of bird flu globally since the outbreak began in 2020, with the Texas case being the only known instance of mammal transmission. Despite the low incidence of spillover events, WHO recognizes the potential threat of mammalian transmission of the H5N1 virus, which can be fatal to humans.

The avian flu outbreak has not only affected migrating birds but has also spread to a variety of wildlife species in the US, including foxes, raccoons, possums, skunks, seals, leopards, bears, mountain lions, and bobcats. Even domestic pets like cats and dogs have been affected, in addition to farm animals such as cattle and goats. WHO considers the current situation a global zoonotic animal pandemic, emphasizing the need to monitor and contain the spread of avian influenza to protect both animal and human populations. Understanding which avian viruses are circulating in urban areas like New York City is crucial for identifying potential risks to public health and wildlife.

The threat of bird flu extends beyond rural areas to urban environments, highlighting the importance of vigilance and preventative measures for residents, pet owners, and public health officials. By recognizing the risks associated with the spread of avian influenza in cities, steps can be taken to mitigate potential outbreaks and protect both wildlife and human populations from the impact of this highly contagious virus.

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