Israeli Bird Flu: Potential New International Health Crisis?

by James DiGeorgia | 12/28/2021 4:22 PM
Israeli Bird Flu: Potential New International Health Crisis?

The H5N1 bird flu is spreading fast in northern Israel, where at last report, at least 5,200 cranes have died of the disease while literally hundreds of thousands of chickens have had to be destroyed in an effort to contain the disease’s advance.

While the avian flu is confined mostly to birds and rarely jumps to humans, the fact remains that if it jumps to humans, it can be lethal.

So far the death toll on humans since 2003 from H5N1 has been confined to a confirmed 863 cases  in people, 456 of whom died according to an update published by the World Health Organization. So there’s no reason to panic.

Even better, as of today Israel has no reported cases of any humans being infected. Those who may have been exposed to the virus are now receiving preventive antiviral treatments.  Still, the news of an outbreak is worth paying attention to because other countries, including Britain, China, Norway, and South Korea, have also reported major or higher-than-unusual H5N1 outbreaks in recent months.

Britain declared a bird flu prevention zone, requiring all farmers to follow stricter biosecurity protocols after several outbreaks.

Most people around the world don’t realize that Israel is a central stop along a migratory route for scores of species of birds migrating from Europe and Asia to Africa, a convergence that raises the risk of avian flu spreading from wild birds to captive poultry populations in Israel.

One species of cranes numbering over 500,000 migrate through Israel every year of which approximately 30,000 remain in Israel for the winter. The yearly stopover, is part of journey the cranes make over thousands of miles, is a bird watcher’s delight; who travel annually to Israel to observe the large, long-legged and long-necked birds.

Although the H5N1 outbreak is in its early stages, it has wrought the most serious damage to wildlife in the history of the country according to Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg.

Zandberg shared a photo of dead cranes peppering a lake in Israel’s Hula Nature Reserve, a hot spot for all sorts of migratory birds in addiition to the cranes. Zandberg stresses…

“The extent of the damage is still unclear,”

Israel experience with the Bird Flu is a recent phenomenon; it reported its first cases of H5N1 in 2006. Yet, since then Israel has seen outbreaks nearly every year since. The extent of this year’s train of transmission is not yet clear, but regulations require poultry and wild birds be kept separated to limit the chance of transference.

This ecological crisis was first reported on Dec. 19, when the Agriculture Ministry reported that H5N1 had been detected in a farming community, Margaliot, near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. The ministry said it had closed off the area and halted domestic chicken egg production immediately.

Agriculture Minister Oded Feror said in a statement at the time...

“Crowded and unregulated chicken coops are a ticking bomb for developing diseases,”

On December 19, 2021, Israeli media also reported that about 100 cranes had died in a bird flu outbreak in Hula Lake - a nature reserve in northern Israel. Authorities immediately closed down the area to the public and days later temporarily shut the entire nature reserve.

Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority shared photos of workers in hazmat suits collecting the bodies of dead cranes from the water to demonstrate they are being proactive in limiting the danger to the Israeli population.

Even with the early efforts to contain the outbreak, H5N1 has been detected in at least three other farms in the north of Israel. The outbreaks were detected as a result of Israel’s Agriculture Ministry undertaking a mass testing effort.

The Israeli parks authority issued a statement on Thursday that an estimated 1 in 5 cranes in Israel were likely to be infected with the virus; Israeli media has been reporting the deaths of other bird species from the virus.

In order to prevent human fatalities, Israel’s Agricultural Ministry has warned the public to buy only eggs that have the required regulatory stamp and to consume thoroughly cooked eggs to prevent spread of the virus to humans, and warned the public to keep their a distance from wild birds.

On Tuesday, the ministry instructed chicken farmers in Margaliot to closely monitor cats that spend time around their chicken coops, as cats can also become infected with the H5N1 virus.

The mass destruction of chickens has created a shortage of between 15 million and 20 million eggs a month. Approximately 200 million eggs are consumed monthly in Israel.

Israel, and for that matter any scientist, has not indicated that there’s any danger of the Covid crisis combining with H5N1 to create a new deadly virus.

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