Bird flu and you


Poultry can carry bird flu. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 1, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird flu and you, so far, so good.”

2014 Update: Bird flu continues to mutate into different strains

By Barb Gorges

Bird flu is everywhere I look. The virus keeps popping up in the news and has even become the punch line of jokes.

Bird flu is also, literally, everywhere. Wild birds can carry many subtypes of Influenza A without getting sick, but some can be deadly for poultry like chickens, turkeys and ducks. Wild ducks mingling with domestic ducks are thought to have sparked the ongoing bird flu epidemic in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Not all bird flu viruses are highly pathogenic, but the subtype making the news, H5N1, is deadly to poultry. Ninety to 100 percent of infected birds die within 48 hours. During the Asian outbreaks in 2003 and 2004, flocks were also killed by farmers and officials to try to control the spread of bird flu. It has not yet spread to birds in the United States.

In 1997 the first cases of humans infected by poultry surfaced in Hong Kong. The risk to people from bird flu is normally low, but of 140 reported cases of people with H5N1 since the beginning of 2004, about half have died. So far, no people have contracted it while in North America.
As of Jan. 7, human cases are being reported in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Turkey.

It’s a good idea to practice poultry hygiene, especially because of all the other avian-transmitted diseases. So don’t breath near a sneezing duck, don’t wipe a chicken’s nose and don’t touch your face with your hands after cleaning the chicken coop. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends poultry workers wear protective suits and treat all birds as if they are infected.

Most of us don’t come in contact with live chickens, a sad commentary on the disconnect between consumer and food source, but it is possible to contract bird flu from inadequately cooked poultry from countries presently dealing with outbreaks. You?d have to travel to those countries to eat it since the U.S. has embargoed their unprocessed poultry products.

Bird flu vaccines are in the works, but meanwhile people should get regular flu shots, say experts at the CDC. Should bird flu come to the U.S., you have a better chance of survival if you are in good health. Plus, there’s a slight chance if human flu and bird flu come together in the same host, the dreaded evolution may happen–bird flu transmissible from human to human. It has apparently happened only once so far, between a mother and closely-held child.

We backyard birders also concerned with the ramifications of bird flu. Two dozen Asian wild bird species are reported to have died from H5N1. However, there are no cases yet of the virus being transmitted from wild bird to human.

What does worry us is how migrating birds will spread H5N1. So far birds from “infected” countries have not spread it along migration routes through Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia.

We backyard birders also want to know if it’s safe to continue feeding birds. It is, as long as we follow the precautions we’ve always had to promote the health of birds and birdwatchers.

Keep birdfeeding areas and feeders clean. Disinfect them every few weeks with a mild bleach solution and rinse well.

If you notice a sick bird, stop feeding. A sick bird acts lethargic, has feathers out of place, is fluffed up more than other similar birds and might have crusts around its eyes. Clean up spilled seed and debris, then disinfect and put away your feeders for a week to encourage healthy birds to stay away.

Take precautions for your own health, remembering that there are other diseases carried by birds, including West Nile Virus and salmonella. Never handle birds dead or alive–or anything full of bird droppings–without disposable gloves or plastic bags over your hands.

Be careful not to breathe the dust when sweeping up old seed hulls and keep your hands away from your face until you can wash them well.
Now that I’ve assured you that you can safely eat chicken and feed birds in our country, that’s not to say that new wrinkles in bird flu won’t develop while this edition of the Outdoors section is going to press.

Since sound bites can be maddeningly uninformative for people with above average interest in a topic, let me recommend the CDC Web site, I found it to be informative, clearly written and frequently updated with advice, especially for poultry workers, travelers and people caring for bird flu patients.

For people who work with wild birds or hunt birds or mammals, information from the National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Health Bulletin #05-03 is extremely useful. Find it at

The media and the experts frequently look back to the 1918 global flu pandemic to try to forecast what will happen when this strain of bird flu evolves the potential to transfer from human to human.

Hopefully, the disadvantages of our modern global mobility will be offset by the advantages of modern science, medicine and communications. Meanwhile, do something to protect yourself. Promote your personal health. Take a walk. Go birding.