Should I be Worried About the Bird Flu?

The U.S has been on heightened vigilance for the bird flu – also known as H5N1 avian flu – following recent poultry outbreaks of the virus in the midwest this past year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed on January 15th, 21016 that a turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana, was infected with the the virus, making it the first case of bird flu symptoms in U.S. poultry flocks since June 2015.

Federal officials considered last year’s outbreak in Iowa the worst animal health emergency in all of U.S. history – more than 31.5 million poultry died from the disease or were destroyed as their flocks were infected, according to Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association.

Experts, farmers, and government officials are all concerned about a possible worldwide outbreak, or “pandemic,” of this contagious disease, looking cautiously ahead. Does this all mean you should be worried about developing symptoms of the bird flu? Saludmóvil’s medical expert Dr. Joseph Mosquera says there really is no simple answer, but it definitely means you should be mindful of the bird flu.

What are bird flu symptoms for humans?

The reported symptoms of the H5N1 avian flu in humans has a wide range of symptoms, according to the CDC, which include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • muscle aches
  • lower respiratory disease (pneumonia, or viral pneumonia)
  • shortness of breath
  • acute respiratory distress
  • respiratory failure,
  • multi-organ disease,
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • neurologic changes (such as altered mental status or seizures)

Can I be infected with the bird flu?

The good news is, when it comes to people living in the United States the risk of infection is limited to birds and there have been very few human cases, and none in the U.S. so far, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Most human cases around the world have been of those in direct contact with dead or sick poultry.

Human infection with H5N1 is rare and there is no evidence that this virus can spread easily between people, according to the CDC.

Almost all cases of H5N1 infection in people have been associated with close contact with infected live or dead birds, or H5N1- contaminated environments, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO also notes that there is no evidence that the disease can spread to people through properly cooked food.

Bird flu symptoms for chickens, turkeys, and other poultry

  • sudden death without any signs
  • nasal discharge/crust
  • sneezing/coughing
  • lack of coordination
  • lower egg production by females
  • soft-shelled and/or contorted eggs
  • purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs
  • Overall lethargy and lack of appetite
  • diarrhea
  • swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks

What is the current risk of Avian Flu in the U.S. for poultry?

Unfortunately for our poultry, wild waterfowl are carriers of avian influenza, making the potential for exposure extremely difficult to eliminate. Unlike domestic birds like chickens and turkey where the virus has a high mortality rate, wild birds such as geese, duck, and swan that are simply hosts of the virus and are seemingly unaffected by the disease.

Farms are working to minimize contact of their birds with wild birds, but it’s difficult to keep out all the birds that migrates come springtime. Avian influenza A virus infection cannot be diagnosed by clinical signs and symptoms alone; laboratory testing is required, according to the CDC.

Detecting the bird flu virus in humans

Avian influenza A virus infection is usually diagnosed by collecting a swab from the nose or throat of the sick person during the first few days of illness and results come within the day, but for some patients who are no longer very sick or recovered, its more difficult and requires further testing.

This requires identifying specific antibodies the body has produced in response to the virus. It requires two blood specimens-one taken during the first week of illness and another taken 3-4 weeks later. Results often can take weeks to verify, and testing must be performed in a special laboratory.

Where did the bird flu come from?

The bird flu is considered a highly pathogenic virus that has caused serious outbreaks in domestic poultry in parts of Asia and the Middle East, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

This infectious, viral disease of birds, has been around since 1997 but came to the forefront of medical news globally back in 2013 when the H5N1 strain was transmitted to a handful of humans who had close contact with poultry in Shanghai, China.  

According to a publication by Harvard Medical School, if the the virus manages to mutate in just the right way, we will all need to worry a lot more about the avian flu. However, this takes a very particular set of circumstances and therefore statistically is highly unlikely to be an immediate danger.

Tips on how you can prevent the bird flu

Controlling the disease in animals is the first step in decreasing risks to humans. So yes, it is safe to eat properly prepared and cooked poultry and game birds by using these tips, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling any raw poultry or eggs.
  • The virus is sensitive to heart. Use a food thermometer to make sure you cook poultry to a temperature of at least 165o F or 75oC
  • Clean cutting boards and other utensils with soap and water to keep raw poultry from contaminating other foods.
  • Cook eggs until whites and yolks are firm, unlike when eggs are prepared sunny side up or over easy.

The CDC also notes due to the possibility that avian influenza A viruses have potential to rapidly alter and change, monitoring for human infection and person-to-person transmission is extremely important for public health.

As with all viruses, this situation can change for better or worse, and it’s just important to stay informed and aware of the risks and how to curb them. Hopefully, like most epidemics, it will slowly subside on its own, through a natural process.