One of TikTok’s favorite birds, the beloved Emmanuel the emu, has a life-threatening case of avian influenza. However, virologists and animal handlers have raised concerns about how the owner is dealing with the sick bird.
Avian influenza is a disease caused by influenza type A viruses that naturally spread among wild birds, such as ducks, geese, vultures, and hawks, and can infect domesticated poultry such as chickens, turkeys, and ducks. People don’t normally contract bird flu viruses, but if they do, infections can sometimes be fatal.
When a virus jumps from birds to humans, the concern is that the germ could undergo genetic changes and spread more easily from person to person, setting the stage for a flu pandemic. (Although the current threat to humans is considered to be low, according to the CDC.)
Taylor Blake, who works on Knuckle Bump Farms in South Florida, has 2.4 million followers on TikTok and posts videos of Emmanuel and other animals in an effort to teach people about farm life.
On Saturday, Oct. 15, however, Blake revealed on Twitter that she lost over 50 birds in just three days following what she believes was the introduction of avian influenza via wild Egyptian geese. The wild birds would fly into her farm every night, she said. Domesticated birds can get sick by coming into contact with contaminated saliva, nasal secretions, and feces from other infected birds; Blake mentioned that state officials believe the excess standing water from Hurricane Ian “made the virus more rampant.”
Bird flu is typically separated in two categories: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI), which causes little to no symptoms in birds, and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — strains that are extremely contagious and deadly to birds, which are likely responsible for the colossal loss at Blake’s farm.
HPAI has been spreading in Europe for about a year and recently made its way to Canada. It was detected for the first time in Florida in January, and has since been found in several other states, including Kentucky, New York, Virginia, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, and Nebraska.
Emmanuel is one of the last remaining birds at the Florida farm and is currently fighting for his life, Blake said.
“I cannot even begin to express the guttural feeling of watching innocent animals die,” Blake tweeted. “[Emmanuel] has a long road ahead, but I know in my heart that God is healing him. I know all of this won’t be in vain.”
As tragic as the loss is, infectious disease experts can’t help but cringe at the photos Blake has shared of her cuddling, kissing, and handling a sickly Emmanuel — the only surviving emu on the farm — without protective equipment. Some experts are questioning why Blake said she attempted to save some of her animals, which in this scenario should be euthanized to prevent further spread.
In her defense, Blake says she can’t wear a mask because it stresses the bird, and that she’s taking other steps, including sanitizing her hands, clothes, and body, as well as quarantining on the farm.
Typically during outbreaks of bird flu, millions of domestic poultry are euthanized to stop the spread of the viruses. This year’s outbreak is the worst in North America since 2014-2015, when 50 million chickens and turkeys in the US either died or were culled to stop the spread of the disease.
Douglas Reed, an associate professor of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who studies avian influenza, told us that H5N1 viruses — the strain that’s currently circulating in US wild birds and poultry — “have been on our radar for a long time as a potential pandemic virus.”
Close contact with sick birds in the way that Blake is handling Emmanuel is not recommended.
“Fortunately there has been no sustained human-to-human transmission, but with every exposure we risk that the virus could adapt to spread more easily human-to-human,” Reed wrote in an email. “Handling or close contact with infected animals without use of appropriate personal protective equipment accentuates that risk, as we do not have a good understanding of how avian influenza viruses transmit from birds to humans.
“Of course, I also feel compassion for the individuals involved in this particular story; it is heartbreaking to have a pet become ill and potentially die (or need to be euthanized) from a serious disease,” Reed continued. “But in this instance the risks to the humans involved, and to the rest of us, also has to be weighed.”
How bird flu spreads and what to know about your personal risk at this time
People can contract bird flu by touching their mouth, eyes, or nose after prolonged, close, and unprotected contact with infected birds’ saliva, feces, or bodily fluids, according to the CDC. The virus can also become aerosolized in droplets or dust, so it’s possible to get infected via inhalation, as well.
Not everyone who gets infected experiences symptoms, but those who do may feel mild illness such as sore throat, eye redness, runny nose, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. More serious conditions are possible, too, like pneumonia, that require hospitalization. Fever is not guaranteed; meanwhile, other less common symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, or seizures.
Person-to-person spread is incredibly rare, the CDC says, but even when it has happened, it hasn’t led to further spread among people. Since 2003, 19 countries have reported “rare, sporadic human infections” with H5N1 bird flu viruses, but no known events have occurred with the H5N1 virus circulating in US birds at this time.
The best way to prevent infection, the CDC says, is to avoid exposure from the start. If that’s not possible, the use of gloves, medical-grade face masks, and eye protection is an absolute must. Otherwise, it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water and change your clothes after touching or handling wild birds.
Only two infections in humans with the currently circulating H5N1 bird flu viruses have been reported. The first occurred in December 2021 in an asymptomatic person in the UK who raised birds. The second — and only case reported in the US — was confirmed in Colorado in April in a person who was culling (eliminating) infected poultry and whose only symptoms included fatigue. (Just four people have contracted LPAI viruses in the US.)
Globally, a total of 863 infections and 455 deaths caused by H5N1 have been reported since 2003, according to an alert posted in January by the World Health Organization.
The good news is that the current risk to the general public is low, the CDC says. (Although people with job-related or recreational exposures to birds may face higher risks of infection and are advised to take appropriate precautions.)
Equally as positive is the fact that the latest H5N1 viruses in the US do not carry the same mutations as past strains that allowed them to spread faster among poultry and infect people more easily, the CDC says.
“The detections of H5 viruses in wild birds, poultry and in one person in the United States do not change the risk to the general public’s health, which CDC considers to be low,” the agency says on its website. “Right now, the H5N1 bird flu situation remains primarily an animal health issue. However, CDC is watching this situation closely and taking routine preparedness and prevention measures in case this virus changes to pose a greater human health risk.”
The agency notes that if multiple reports of H5N1 infections in people emerge across the US, or if person-to-person spread is occurring, then it may be time to consider avian influenza a public health risk.
In the meantime, you should avoid handling dead or sick birds. If you must, the CDC recommends wearing disposable gloves and using an inverted plastic bag over your hand when picking up a dead bird. You can also help reduce the virus’ spread among wild birds by regularly cleaning your bird feeders with a 10% bleach solution.
If you are exposed to bird flu, you should isolate yourself from others until you recover. You can also take flu antiviral drugs that can help protect you from severe illness with avian influenza; these work best if taken soon after symptoms begin. Some evidence shows that flu antivirals aren’t as effective against some H5N1 and H7N9 viruses, which are another type of avian flu that can cause sporadic outbreaks in humans.
Flu shots can also reduce your risk of getting seriously ill with bird flu viruses, although they can’t prevent infection, the CDC says.