By: Nathaniel J. Greene, Community & Culture Reporter

As summer approaches, the anticipation of warm days and outdoor activities is accompanied by emerging health threats. A recent news briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services on May 24 brought together leading experts to discuss two significant health concerns: avian flu and a new Covid variant. The briefing, titled “How Safe Are We This Summer?” offered a sobering look at the potential dangers lurking in the warmer months.

Avian Flu: More Than Just a Bird Problem

Dr. Maurice Pitesky, an associate professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, provided a detailed analysis of the avian flu’s current surge. He explained that waterfowl like ducks and geese, which migrate thousands of miles, are the primary reservoirs of the virus.

“When these birds migrate, especially in the Arctic, different flyways intersect, creating unique reassortments and combinations of avian influenza,” Dr. Pitesky noted.

This intersection increases the risk of the virus spreading to domesticated animals such as chickens and dairy cows, especially in regions with significant human agriculture.

The virus spreads through various means, including fecal shedding and respiratory aerosols from infected birds.

Dr. Pitesky warned, “Every time wild birds interact with domesticated animals, it’s like rolling the dice.” The impact on immigrant workers in the poultry and dairy industries is particularly concerning. “These workers face unique risks due to the underreporting of cases, largely because of their vulnerable status,” he added.

The New Covid Variant: FLiRT with Danger

The emergence of a new Covid variant, FLiRT, was another focal point of the briefing. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine at UCSF, highlighted the challenges posed by this more contagious variant.

“We’ve already seen about 880 cases globally with a 50% fatality rate,” he stated, emphasizing the potential for a summer surge as people gather more indoors due to rising temperatures.

Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a professor of biology at Texas A&M University, explained the genetic characteristics of the FLiRT variant.

“This is one of the most aggressive versions of the virus we’ve seen, with mutations that help it evade immunity,” he said. Despite these mutations, he reassured that recent vaccination remains the best defense against severe outcomes.

Underreporting and Vulnerable Populations

Both Dr. Pitesky and Dr. Chin-Hong emphasized the underreporting of cases among immigrant workers, who are often at the forefront of these industries.

“The culture in these workplaces isn’t conducive to taking sick leave, especially for undocumented workers,” Dr. Chin-Hong explained. This lack of reporting not only masks the true extent of the problem but also endangers public health by allowing the virus to spread unchecked.

Looking Ahead: Preparedness and Vigilance

The experts agreed on the need for ongoing vigilance and innovation in dealing with these threats.

“We need to be more innovative in our approaches, considering both wildlife surveillance and farm-level risk assessments,” Dr. Pitesky advised.

Dr. Neuman echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of updated vaccinations and continuous monitoring of virus mutations.

As we enjoy the summer, it’s crucial to remain aware of these invisible threats. With proper precautions and a commitment to public health measures, we can navigate these challenges and safeguard our communities.