Watch CBS News

Avian flu spreading to marine mammals grows concern of potential risk to humans, study says

New study says avian flu could potentially spread to humans, but the danger is currently low
New study says avian flu could potentially spread to humans, but the danger is currently low 02:09

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Concern is growing about the avian flu now spreading to marine mammals and a new study says that it increases the potential risk to humans.

The danger to humans is low right now, but as long as the avian flu is spreading to other animals, there's a risk it could spread to people, which is why scientists say close surveillance and research is needed.

Dying elephant seals on the coast of western Argentina are linked to H5N1, the virus known as avian influenza.

It has been circulating in birds for decades. Last year's sky-high egg prices were due to a 2022 outbreak that affected 58 million chickens in the United States alone.

Researchers say there have been cases where the virus spreads from infected birds to mammals. Now, researchers fear it may be moving from one mammal to another.

"I think it's quite likely," Dr. Chris Walzer, with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said.

Now, there's a push to do better tracking of viruses in animals – to protect humans.

"This avian influenza outbreak has been one of the largest threats to wildlife globally," Walzer said. "We just can't wait for it to hit human populations. We need to be working upstream to look at what's happening in these wildlife populations."

The risk remains low, but experts say the virus is changing quickly.

"We need to be on it, to see if the virus acquiring new traits that could create a problem for us humans," Walzer said.

In Argentina, experts estimate last year 18,000 seals died and most of them pups. More than 95% of the seals born in Argentina in 2023 did not survive.

"Someone described it as apocalyptic," Valeria Falabella, scientist, said. "This kind of mortality is completely new for us."

Now, scientists everywhere are being urged to watch for signs the avian flu is spreading.

The CDC says people who work closely with birds may be at higher risk of getting avian flu and should take precautions.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.