Will the Bird Flu Be the Next Pandemic? Here’s How to Evaluate Alarming Health Information

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
May 21, 2024
Woman sitting on couch watching news

Will the bird flu be the next pandemic? The answer is probably no. In fact, only one mild case has been found in humans in 2024.

But that hasn’t stopped it from being front-page news.

Yes, public health officials are on high alert: Bird flu has a high death rate. However, the rate of transmission to humans is very low and vaccines to help prevent it and medications used to treat it are still effective, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bird flu, also known as the avian flu or H5N1, was first detected in 1959. Although it has evolved over time, the most recent breakout is not a new strain.  

The virus mostly affects wild migrating birds, along with mammals who interact with birds like foxes, cats, skunks, seals, dolphins and bears. The recent multistate outbreak affected dairy cows. Humans can be at risk of they work with wild animals or livestock.  

If a human does catch it, symptoms are often mild. One reason is the virus doesn’t spread to our respiratory tracts -- we lack receptors in our throats, nose and upper respiratory tract that are susceptible to the virus. 

“Everyone should be vigilant about protecting yourself from infectious diseases such as the avian flu, particularly if you’re immune compromised,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “However, this outbreak doesn’t present the hallmark characteristics of a pandemic like COVID.”

Recognizing the Characteristics of a Pandemic

An epidemic is a disease or type of injury that breaks out in a particular geographical area, whereas, a pandemic, is a disease that spreads to multiple areas, across countries and continents. Pandemics occur because the virus causing them can:

  • Reproduce and mutate rapidly.
  • Spread through human contact.  
  • Cause a second wave.

Scientists have been studying bird flu for more than 20 years. Based on the information released about it, it doesn’t meet the criteria for a pandemic.

Understanding the characteristics of a pandemic may help prevent some sleepless nights worrying about pandemics that may never happen. But how do you assess other types of health information that often released during an outbreak or a disaster?

Recognizing Accurate Health Information

Not all health information is reported correctly. Chances are, you’ll read or hear inaccurate health information at some point. In fact, most Americans encounter health misinformation and can’t determine its accuracy, according to a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

One challenge for consumers is that health topics can take on a political dimension. This is why health information – regardless of its truthfulness – tends to be more believable if it aligns with your personal belief system or social norm.

We also tend to want to believe in cure-alls. Hucksters and snake-oil salesmen have been peddling inaccurate but believable health information for centuries.

Another problem is artificial intelligence. AI-generated images have been known to produce health content that has promoted unproven cures, inaccurate statistics and dangerous advice, according to the University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Library System.

Misinformation tends to be more common on social media than legacy media, as most newspapers, radio and television stations have stronger safeguards in place to protect the integrity of information, when compared to social media. And social media does not do a very good job controlling the spread of unscientific health hacks and conspiracy theories. However, more and more people are relying alternative sources of news like social media as faith in mainstream media continues to wane. Currently, trust in mainstream media is at an all-time low, according to Fortune magazine.

Whether you get your health information through traditional or alternative sources, you should always consider if the information that’s touting:

  • A health hack, quick fix or cure that lacks scientific support.
  • Information from a so-called expert who lacks credentials.
  • Information from a credible health expert but in an area that’s out of their realm of expertise.
  • Exaggerated claims that are either too good to be true or over the top.
  • Foodborne illness and food recalls that don’t affect your area (you can visit https://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls-and-outbreaks to verify)
  • Information based on a poorly conducted medical study.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of erroneous health information out there, including from medical studies. Results from a recent study published in Nature suggested that in some fields of medicine, at least one-quarter of clinical trials may have problematic or erroneous data,” says Kaminetsky. “Fortunately, there are some tell-tale signs to help you distinguish credible health information from junk science.”

Recognizing Credible Health Information

These links can help you decide if the information is credible.

“When you hear information that concerns you, my advice is to discuss it with your primary care doctor,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “They are usually well apprised of the current public health issues and can guide you based on your geographic location and health history.”

If you don’t have a primary care physician, consider joining an MDVIP-affiliated practice. MDVIP-affiliated doctors have the time to work with you to focus on your wellness and answer questions about health trends. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health »

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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