Would Penguins Taste like Chicken to Bird Flu?


In the movie Mr. Popper's Penguins there's a scene in which the main character and his family are "rescuing" a group of penguins from the zoo. As they leave, they yell something to the effect of "arctic bird flu infectious disease emergency!" to facilitate their escape. 

While penguins can contract influenza, they are not the main concern with respect to a future bird flu pandemic as their exposure to humans is minimal. 

Currently, mankind is faced with dual threats from avian influenza: H5N1 and H7N9 (though other avian strains have kept into humans). These viruses, contracted by poultry exposure, have extremely high mortality rates but have not been able to spread efficiently between humans--the precondition for a pandemic.

H7N9 has been a relatively new threat that emerged in 2 waves in China (with subsequent cases imported to Taiwan) beginning last year. To date 238 cases have occurred with 57 deaths. This past week, China reported 45 new cases. 


In its latest risk assessment, the WHO anticipates more human cases possibly tied to the celebrations associated with the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, which will involve larger scale transportation of poultry. The ability of the virus to gain the ability to spread from human to human is unlikely.

Unfortunate for us, viruses like H7N9 reside in bird species with which humans have regular contact and not penguins--no offense to the natural or Pittsburgh variety.