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The Spillover effect

  • Published
    27th Feb, 2023

The current epidemic of avian influenza has killed over 58 million birds in the U.S. as of February 2023.



What does the Spillover mean?

  • The continuous large outbreaks of viruses like bird flu raise the spectre of another disease jumping from animals into humans. This is called the ‘Spillover effect’.
  • Spillover involves any type of disease-causing pathogen, be it a virus, parasite or bacteria, transferring to humans.
  • The pathogen can be something never before seen in people, such as a new Ebola virus carried by bats, or it could be something well-known and recurring, like Salmonella from farm animals.
  • The probability that spillover will occur depends on many biological and social factors, including the rate and severity of animal infections, environmental pressure on the disease to evolve and the amount of close contact between infected animals and people.

How spillovers are detected?

  • Spillover events can be hard to detect as sometimes a virus that transfers from animals to humans poses no risk to people if the virus is not well adapted to human biology.
  • But the more often this jump occurs, the higher the chances a dangerous pathogen will adapt and take off.

Spillover and spread:

  • As development expands into new habitats, wild animals come into closer contact with people – and, importantly, the food supply.
  • The mixing of wildlife and farm animals greatly amplifies the risk that a disease will jump species and spread like wildfire among farm animals.

Poultry across the U.S. are experiencing the effects, as the avian flu spread through chicken farms mostly through migrating ducks.

Is avian influenza spread a spillover?

  • The new avian influenza virus is a distant descendant of the original H5N1 strain that has caused human epidemics of bird flu in the past.
  • Health officials are detecting cases of this new flu virus jumping from birds to other mammals – like foxes, skunks and bears.
  • The avian influenza virus has the potential to convert into a spillover but not yet the case for India.
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