Virologists said they were left shocked after viral social media posts from an influencer and farm owner showed her cuddling TikTok’s most famous emu, lovingly called Emmanuel Todd Lopez, after it contracted avian flu.
Experts are warning US farmers to cease cuddling and coming in close contact with infected birds, saying it could be “extremely dangerous”.
One expert has said this was “no different than exposure to bird flu from a bird market or wet market anywhere in the world”.
The warnings have come after an outpouring of sorrow and support for Taylor Blake, an influencer, whose family-owned bird farm in Florida, Knuckle Bump Farms, came under attack from the disease and led to the deaths of 50 birds.
Among the birds that got the disease, but are still alive, is Emmanuel the emu.
“I am still trying to wrap my head around it,” Ms Blake wrote. “We thought we were out of the woods, when Emmanuel unexpectedly went down this past Wednesday.”
The Twitter thread is going viral as Emmanuel had earlier become the most-followed bird on TikTok for constantly interrupting Ms Blake’s video recordings and pecking at her phone. The farm’s TikTok account has collected more than 2.4 million followers.
Ms Blake said she is looking for avian specialists who can treat Emmanuel for nerve damage in his right leg and foot, saying she could “do anything and go into any amount of debt to save his life”.
But even as social media users were left “devastated” by the news, several virologists and veterinarians have raised an alarm over the photos shared by Ms Blake who was seen cuddling, kissing and hugging the infected bird.
“This is how zoonotic transmissions occur, this is why entire farms cull sick birds. We live with the threat of pandemic flu,” wrote Boghuma Kabisen Titanij, a doctor and global health and infectious disease researcher at Emory University.
“This may seem cute but it’s no different than exposure to bird flu from a bird market or wet market anywhere else in the world. It carries a risk and the public should be educated on this,” she added.
American virologist Angela Rasmussen said she “screamed” when she saw the photos and urged people to not cuddle, touch or kiss birds with avian flu as this could be “extremely dangerous to humans and other animals”.
She also suggested euthanasia for birds infected with the dangerous flu.
Another virologist, Tom Peacock, who works as a flu researcher at Imperial College, London, wrote a lengthy Twitter thread that began with a reiteration of his colleagues’s warnings, telling people to not touch or attempt to treat infected or dead birds.
“We are entering the third year of unprecedented levels of circulation of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in Europe – the culprit is H5N1 – similar viruses are causing the current outbreaks in North America as well,” he wrote in another tweet.
“There have also been several human infections, among poultry workers and keepers. It is highly likely as this epizootic continues there will be further cases,” he said.
When asked about the number of birds to human transmission, he said that while “in the current outbreak there have been very few cases”, earlier avian flu epidemics “have ended with hundreds of human deaths”.
Ms Blake, in another tweet, has said she was taking “every precaution recommended by the FDA”, was “fully compliant with the state” and said Knuckle Bump farms was put in a “complete quarantine for 150 days”.
But she also added that “Emmanuel freaks out whenever we approach him wearing a mask”, but said that she and her girlfriend have isolated the emu and also sanitize themselves “before and after entering and exiting his stall”.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a highly infectious strain of avian influenza has claimed lives of millions of wild birds and domestic poultry as the particular strain is spreading across the US.
It also confirmed one case of human transmission in May. The person from Colorado caught it from a commercial poultry facility and has since recovered.
While transmission to humans is rare, people can contract the disease if “the virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled,” according to the CDC.