FEATURE | Posted June 1, 2015

Bird flu ...am I at risk?

What you and your family need to know

chickens and ducks  © iStockphoto
Backyard chickens can be infected because they may have contact with a wild bird. If you have chickens, keep an eye out for any of the symptoms and report it to public health.

A recent outbreak of bird flu in the United States has spread across 19 states and affected more than 30 million birds. California is one of the 19 states and has had two confirmed commercial poultry flocks infected with flu this year. In January, a turkey flock was found to be infected in Stanislaus County, and in February, a flock of chickens was infected in Kings County. The two outbreaks combined to involve more than 100,000 infected birds.

Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, explains what bird flu is, how it’s spread and whether Californians are at risk.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is the common name for avian influenza. The avian influenza virus is related to human influenza, but it primarily affects various bird species.

How is it spread?

In some ways, it’s similar to how influenza is spread in humans. Bird flu is spread through saliva, coughing, nasal secretions and also feces of chickens, ducks and turkeys. Because of this, large areas can get contaminated. Since bird flu has a similar seasonality to human influenza, it is anticipated that this outbreak should end as we approach summer.

Where did this outbreak of bird flu come from?

Bird flu is related to migratory birds that come in contact with domestic farms that are producing poultry. They then get infected. The current outbreak appears to be a combined strain from Asia and Western Europe. Currently, there are three strains causing disease in the US. They are H5N2, H5N8 and H5N1, none of which primarily cause disease in humans.

Can birds transmit bird flu to humans?

There have been no human cases of bird flu with these strains. The public health risk is low.

What kinds of birds are affected or at risk?

Chickens, ducks and turkeys are at risk, and any wild birds such as geese or quail.

What about backyard chickens?

Yes, backyard chickens can be infected because they may have contact with a wild bird. If you have chickens, keep an eye out for any of the symptoms and report it to public health.

Should people avoid poultry, or take special precautions if around poultry?

It’s always appropriate to be hygienic around poultry. People should always avoid sick or dead birds and any surfaces contaminated by bird feces. If you are around poultry, make sure to wash your hands and surfaces often, and disinfect any equipment. When walking in areas with poultry, scrub your shoes with disinfectant.

Is it safe to eat poultry?

Yes, it’s safe to eat poultry. Eggs are OK to eat as well. When birds are infected, they have decreased egg production and the eggs they produce are often misshapen with weak shells. It’s unlikely that they would come to market.

Though there have been no cases of the virus transmitting from poultry to humans, it's always best to follow safe food handling recommendations:

  • Separate poultry from other foods.
  • Make sure to wash hands and surfaces (cutting boards) often.
  • Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Do not wash chickens or turkeys before cooking, as it tends to splash around and contaminate other surfaces.

Will there be an egg or chicken shortage?

I don’t know. Millions of birds have been infected, but it’s really a very small percentage of the US domestic poultry operations. Theoretically, there shouldn’t be a bump in prices. But in places like Minnesota and Iowa, with the largest outbreaks, there’s been a slight bump because people are anticipating a shortage.

Will there be enough turkeys for Thanksgiving?

There should be plenty of turkeys for Thanksgiving.