A Texas skunk has bird flu. What does that mean for humans and the price of eggs?

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The first case of highly pathogenic avian influenza, more commonly known as bird flu, has been detected in a mammal in Texas, a sign of the growing outbreak of a virus that’s been spreading from poultry to wild birds and now to mammals.

A laboratory confirmed that a striped skunk in Carson County, near Amarillo, had H5N1, according to a press release from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. H5N1 is the strain of bird flu fueling the outbreak among birds and mammals in North America, and the strain that’s been sickening birds since the 1990s, said Wendy Puryear, a virologist with the veterinary school at Tufts University. This is the first time the virus has been detected in a mammal in Texas.

H5N1 is a highly contagious virus that had been spreading mostly in Europe and in the Arctic, before it made its way to North America last year, Puryear said. Since then, it’s been spreading “like wildfire.”

“The thing that has been really unusual, and the reason that this one is getting so much extra attention, is that this form has had a much greater diversity of species that it’s impacting,” Puryear said.

The virus initially spread from poultry to wild birds, like raptors and gulls, and then quickly began showing up in foxes. Since then, it’s been affecting a growing list of mammals, like the skunk in Carson County.

Although the current outbreak isn’t infecting many humans, there are still reasons to monitor this outbreak closely, Puryear said. Bird flu can infect humans, and the method of transmission is not well understood. (Scientists do know, however, that humans don’t typically get infected after eating an infected bird.) Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Puryear said, virologists expected the next epidemic or pandemic to be caused by bird flu, because it is capable of infecting humans and, when it does, it has a high mortality rate. Less than 10 humans are believed to have been infected in the current outbreak.

The spread of the virus has also contributed to the rising cost of eggs in the U.S., as the current outbreak of bird flu has largely impacted poultry raised for laying eggs. (There has been no safety risk identified with eating eggs, Puryear added.)

The average Texan doesn’t need to worry about becoming infected with bird flu, but people should continue to be very cautious around wildlife of any kind. And Texans who work with poultry, including backyard poultry, should also be vigilant.

“When people are out walking their dogs, if they come across a dead bird, be extra diligent that your animal isn’t interacting with it,” Puryear said as an example.

Other mammals who have been diagnosed with bird flu in other states include foxes, raccoons, bobcats, opossums, mountain lions and black bears, according to the parks and wildlife department. The department urged anyone who sees animals that might have H5N1 to immediately contact their local TPWD wildlife biologist.

Bird flu can cause neurological effects on mammals, Puryear said, so an infected animal might be acting strangely. Mammals that can’t walk, or are walking in circles or are drooping their heads could be infected with bird flu, she said.