All the recent news reports have us pretty worried about bird flu. Am I going to catch it? Is it going to be a huge pandemic? Is my pet bird at risk? Is there a vaccine? Can I do anything to prevent it?
Let me summarize what we know about bird flu, and then help you understand just what the risk to your pet birds might be.
Avian Influenza is not a new disease. The poultry industry has been dealing with it for decades, in various forms. It is a very important disease in that industry due to the high losses that can be incurred when a flock becomes infected.
There are many forms of avian influenza. Some forms cause only mild disease, and only certain types affect humans. The flu that has us worried is a Type A flu virus that has been classified as an H5N1 virus. The numbers and letters refer to the identifying surface proteins that make it unique from other avian flu strains.
Flu viruses typically start as a low pathogenicity form, causing mild or no symptoms. The virus can mutate into a high pathogenicity (high path) form which can cause severe disease and death.
Waterfowl are carriers of low path forms, showing no symptoms themselves, but capable of spreading disease to other non-infected birds. When a new bird species becomes infected, the virus can mutate to the high path form. To date, the H5N1 influenza virus has been found in 188 species of birds.
Although the numbers change often, 63 people in the world have been confirmed as dying from H5N1 avian flu. They were from Asian countries where intimate contact with raw poultry products is more common. By this, I mean consumption of raw chickens or their blood, or extremely poor sanitation and exposure to infected chickens.
None of the human victims have been workers in the poultry industry, despite the massive slaughters of poultry in the efforts to control the disease in these countries.
There has not been a single confirmed case of H5N1 virus in North America. The virus has shown up in various Asian countries and continues to show up in new areas of these countries, as well as Romania and Turkey. Millions of chickens have been slaughtered in these areas in an effort to control the spread of the disease.
Migratory birds have been suspected of spreading the disease as they become exposed to poultry housed outdoors and then continue on migratory pathways, but this theory has not been proven yet. Most recently, the spread has been linked to the railway transportation of poultry species and is suspected of being linked to the illegal transportation of fighting chickens which are carrying the disease.
Humans are currently only at risk of developing disease if they have intimate contact with the virus. Eating raw meat or blood from infected birds has been proven to have caused human deaths. To date, there has not been a single human to human transmission of the disease.
This is the biggest fear: that a human with a different influenza virus will become infected with the H5N1 virus at the same time, which will mutate into a new virus capable of spreading human to human. This would be the pandemic we all fear could infect and cause death in large numbers of people. Currently, the death rate from H5N1 is 50%, in a wide range of ages.
There is no vaccine for H5N1 virus, either in humans or birds. For now, we wait and carefully watch what is happening in other countries. The virus has not been found in North America.
You can protect yourself and your loved feathered ones by taking some common sense precautions:
1. Avoid ingesting raw poultry meat, blood, or feces.
2. Do not mix valuable birds (raptors, psitticines, or others) with poultry species.
3. Monitor the reports on reputable websites of the outbreaks of H5N1 virus.
Staying informed is your best defense.
4. If you travel to Asia, stay out of open-air markets and other
places where poultry species are found. Use good hygiene when visiting there.
5. Do NOT vaccinate your pet birds with any related avian influenza vaccine,
because they will then have a titer for avian influenza and would be among the
first euthanized in the event of an outbreak here.
Excellent websites for up to date information include:
www.oie.int Office of International Animal Health
www.fao.org Food & Agriculture Organization
www.who.org World Health Organization