A highly infectious strain of avian influenza has been raging across the U.S. for months now, claiming the lives of thousands of wild birds and tens of millions of domestic poultry, according to the latest estimates from the CDC.
And now, the bird flu has reportedly come to one of TikTok’s most famous farm’s: Knuckle Bump Farms in Florida, home to Emmanuel the Emu. The bird, who became a viral sensation for his video-bombing tendencies, has now gone viral in the bad way. Emmanuel contracted avian flu, according to multiple tweets from Taylor Blake, the influencer whose family owns the farm.
“We lost 50+ birds in 3 days. I am still trying to wrap my head around it,” she wrote on Twitter. “We thought we were out of the woods, when Emmanuel unexpectedly went down,” Blake added.
As tragic and devastating as bird flu outbreaks are, and as beloved as Emmanuel the Emu may be, virologists on Twitter were horrified to see the type of up-close care Emmanuel seems to be receiving. Many of Blake’s tweets show her cuddling face to face with the ill emu.
Experts are warning: DO NOT DO THIS. “Being face to face with a bird w [sic] avian flu is a bad idea,” posted Boghuma Kabisen Titanij, a doctor and global health and infectious disease researcher at Emory University. “This is how zoonotic transmissions occur, this is why entire farms cull sick birds. We live with the threat of pandemic flu,” Titanij further explained in her tweet thread on the topic.
Although not very common, bird flu can and has jumped from poultry to people multiple times before. A strain closely related to the one currently circulating nationwide has infected hundreds hundreds of people in the past two decades and killed about 50% of those who contracted it, according to the World Health Organization.
In the current U.S. outbreak, only one human is known to have contracted the virus. The person caught the virus at a commercial poultry facility in Colorado and recovered from the disease, according to WHO. Yet the virus has proven that it can mutate to be more transmissible between birds and people.
Close contact with infected birds certainly increases the risk of cross-species spread. “Infected birds shed bird flu virus through their saliva, mucous, and feces,” warns the CDC. “Human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled. This can happen when virus is in the air (in droplets or possibly dust) and a person breathes it in, or possibly when a person touches something that has virus on it then touches their mouth, eyes or nose,” the agency further says on its website.
In other words: Absolutely, positively do not go nose to beak with a sick bird. Other virologists voiced their concern online. “I screamed when I saw this,” tweeted Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.
“If your emu (or any bird) has avian influenza, do not kiss it. Do not cuddle with it. Do not touch it. Bird flu is extremely dangerous to humans and other animals. And it sounds harsh but to prevent [its] spread, birds that get avian flu should be euthanized,” said Rasmussen.
Back at the farm, Blake has posted multiple tweets claiming she and her family are following “FDA guidelines” surrounding bird flu, including quarantining. However instead of cuddling infected birds, the CDC recommends that anyone responding directly to an avian influenza outbreak avoid direct contact where possible and wear protective equipment like gloves, a medical face mask, and eye protection when contact can’t be avoided.