Over the last three years, a highly contagious, often deadly form of bird flu has taken a staggering toll on animals around the globe.
The virus, known as H5N1, has infected birds in more than 80 countries. It has infiltrated big commercial poultry farms and tiny backyard henhouses, affecting 72 million farmed birds in the United States alone, according to the Department of Agriculture. It has struck a wide range of wild bird species, killing gulls and terns by the thousand. And it has turned up repeatedly in mammals, including foxes, skunks, bears, cats, sea lions and dolphins. (It has also caused a small number of deaths in people, primarily in those who had close contact with birds. The risk to the general public remains low, experts say.)
The virus is not done yet. It is surging again in Europe and North America and causing mass animal mortality events in South America. It also appears to be spreading in the Antarctic region for the first time.
“It continues to be unprecedented,” said Thomas Peacock, a virologist at the Pirbright Institute in England. “By several measures, we’re at the worst it’s ever been, particularly in terms of geographical spread, how widespread it is in birds and how many mammals are getting infected.”
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