A Tragic Side Effect of the Bird Flu Pandemic Paranoia

Susan L. Clubb, DVM

People are becoming fearful of birds. Remember when the singing of birds was soothing to the soul? With the current worldwide paranoia about Avian Flu, panic is replacing joy with fear. People are developing an unreasonable and unfounded fear of birds – all birds.

A few facts need to be emphasized in order to try to help people understand what is a threat and what is not.

  1. The H5N1-pathogenic avian flu virus has not been found in the United States. The poultry industry and the USDA are very vigilant to protect US poultry populations and keep our poultry free of Pathogenic Avian Influenza.
  2. Pathogenic Avian Influenza is a disease of domestic poultry – not all birds. Effective control must focus on the poultry industry in affected countries. Stringent global monitoring programs including immediate culling and correct disposal of infected poultry flocks are necessary. Every effort must be made to limit the spread of the virus to wild waterfowl.
  3. Avian Flu exists in many strains and is endemic to wild waterfowl such as mallards, but nearly all other varieties of birds have a low incidence of Avian Flu. The presence of Avian Flu in wild waterfowl does not mean that the birds are diseased or that they can spread a virulent form of the virus to poultry or people. The birds that commonly harbor these viruses have developed resistance over many millennia; they rarely suffer illness from Avian Flu viruses. Avian migrations are typically North to south, not from Asia or Europe to the Americas. Insignificant migrations mostly of shorebirds occur from Russia across the Bering Strait into Alaska but these birds are highly unlikely to come into contact with poultry housed outdoors.
  4. The pathogenic Avian Flu virus will not enter the US in legally imported birds. Since 1972 all birds imported into the United States undergo mandatory quarantine by the US Department of Agriculture and they are tested for highly pathogenic Avian Influenza virus during quarantine. During that 30-year period, with the entry of many millions of exotic birds, Pathogenic Avian Influenza had been found ONLY ONCE in Pekin Robins from China and it was not H5N1. Pathogenic Avian Influenza is an extremely rare disease in pet and exotic birds. Bird owners should have NO FEAR of contracting pathogenic Avian Influenza from pet birds. People, who are potentially interested in purchasing birds bred in the United States for pets, should have no fear of contracting Avian Influenza.
  5. In Asia, 120 reported cases and 61 fatalities have occurred in 3 years. In this region, it is common for millions of people to live in close contact with poultry, with the birds often entering their homes. If a bird becomes ill, the family will often slaughter it, clean it, and cook it, potentially exposing themselves to the virus. Direct heavy exposure to an infected bird’s body fluids is necessary for transmission to people. A favorite Asian dish is raw duck liver. Millions of domestic birds in Asia have become infected and have been destroyed to control the spread of the virus with only 61 human fatalities in 3 years. The case fatality rate may be skewed by the fact that poor people in rural areas who are most likely to be infected, are not likely to seek medical care unless their illness is grave.
  6. Avian Flu viruses rarely, if ever, jump straight to becoming Human Flu viruses. Typically, Avian Influenza must undergo a series of mutations or a large genetic change to acquire the ability of human-to-human transmission. The potential for genetic mutation associated with exchange of genetic information between strains is higher when an animal or human is simultaneously infected with two different strains of influenza. Simultaneous infections of human and bird flu in a pig may be required for the viruses to interchange their genetic information and become both highly infectious to humans and highly pathogenic. This potential exists in Asia where people often keep poultry and pigs around their home. This is the potential that Public Health officials fear. However, these large changes in genetic makeup are just as likely to result genetic changes that make the virus non-pathogenic.
  7. Periodic outbreaks of pathogenic Avian Influenza occur in poultry around the world, including the United States. Since 1997, for example, more that 16 outbreaks of pathogenic Avian Influenza have occurred in poultry within the United States. The virus strains in each of these outbreaks were just as likely as H5N1 to become pathogenic human influenza viruses, yet none of them made the jump from avian virus to human virus. According to CDC records, only 2 mild cases of flu have been reported from people in contact with infected poultry during this time.
  8. Influenza viruses do not persist in the environment outside of a host for long periods of time. Under ideal conditions at room temperatures, human flu viruses can remain infective for about one week. Exposure to sunlight drastically reduces the length of time flu viruses can remain infective.
  9. As long as the H5N1 virus does not gain the ability to be transmitted from human to human, its impact on human health will continue to be minimal. However, it is important to eliminate the virus from affected poultry populations to protect both people and birds. Culling of uninfected avian populations will not assist in the control of Avian Influenza.
  10. Because of governmental and media paranoia, wild populations of migrating birds may be culled or disrupted un-necessarily in misguided efforts to control avian influenza. These actions could result in the needless deaths of millions of birds and could endanger species.
  11. If pathogenic human-to-human transmitted avian influenza does enter the US, it will be by entry of infected humans, not by infected birds. As in the 2003 outbreaks of SARS in Canada, an infected international traveler introduced the disease and subsequent cases occurred in exposed health care workers. This outbreak was brought under control by diligent Public Health response and monitoring of travelers for signs of illness (fever).
  12. Media reports about Bird Flu have created an unreasonable state of fear that can be detrimental to birds and the relationship of people to birds. A rational response is necessary to avoid further deterioration of public perception.

Americans should not be afraid of:

Pet birds
Feeding wild birds in their backyards
Visiting zoos
Visiting parks where they may come into contact with wild birds
Migrating birds
Going to pet stores
Taking their birds to a veterinarian
Attending bird shows
Eating poultry products
Transporting birds on airplanes
Legal importation of exotic birds