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'Avian flu' are two words that are showing up more and more in
the news these days, and as fear grows and rumors spread, it is
becoming difficult to separate fact from fiction. Little to no
factual information has so far been presented to pet bird owners
by authorities regarding how the avian flu might impact them or
their birds, but discussions flourish and rumors grow, seeming
sometimes to spread at close to light-speed! Meanwhile, more
and more pet bird owners are beginning to wonder what the real
facts are, on...
by R C McDonald
copyright (c) Oct 2005
It seems we're hearing more and more about 'bird flu' or avian
influenza in the news these days, but for all the talk, hard
data seems to be at a minimum. What IS known is that, while
there are dozens if not hundreds of known strains of avian
influenza, it is only one that's causing all the trouble. This
strain is termed 'avian influenza A (H5N1)'.
This particular strain of avian infuenza is the only one that
has been known to infect some (so far, very few) humans - but
the spread of this avian influenza virus from one ill person to
another has rarely been reported, and transmission has not been
observed to continue beyond one person, while human flu viruses
kill thousands (elders and children especially) every year.
There are only three 'A' subtypes of known human flu viruses
(H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2). Influenza A viruses are found in a great
many species of mammals as well as birds and humans, and are
constantly changing. Any strain from any source might adapt over
time, with enough exposure, to infect and spread among humans.
Dr Leonard G. Horowitz, D.M.D., M.A., M.P.H., specialist on
emerging diseases, says, "At this writing, the avian flu is said
to have killed 'about 65 people' in Southeast Asia during the
past two years! Little to no data is available on these
individuals who most commonly had immune-compromising medical
conditions. Further, all deaths were in Asian countries with
questionable health services. Conversely, other forms of flu
kill more than 40,000 North Americans annually, generally the
The US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention says, "The risk from bird flu is
generally low to most people because the viruses occur mainly
among birds and do not usually infect humans. However, during
an outbreak of bird flu among poultry (domesticated chicken,
ducks, turkeys), there is a possible risk to people who have
contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been
contaminated with excretions from infected birds."
They continue on to say, "The current outbreak of avian
influenza A (H5N1) among poultry in Asia and Europe is an
example of a bird flu outbreak that has caused human infections
and deaths. In such situations, people should avoid contact
with infected birds or contaminated surfaces, and should be
careful when handling and cooking poultry. In rare instances,
limited human-to-human spread of H5N1 virus has occurred, but
transmission has not been observed to continue beyond one
They go on to state that since all flu viruses are known to
mutate relatively rapidly compared to other disease organisms,
there is a possibility that this virus may one day develop the
ability to spread from human to human, but so far most known
cases have occurred from contact with infected poultry or
According to the CDC website quoted above, the current risk to
North Americans from the bird flu outbreaks in Asia is very low,
but they do state that travelers returning from affected
countries in Asia could be infected if they were exposed to the
virus. They recommend that anybody travelling to a country with
a known outbreak of the H5N1 virus avoid poultry farms, contact
with animals in live food markets, and any surfaces that appear
to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals.
They do not, however, recommend any travel restrictions be
placed on current travel to affected countries.
Although it's not said in so many words, these facts indicate
that it is likely that good hygiene, cleanliness, and proper
care and attention to handling food products, especially raw
meats, along with thorough cooking practices, can minimize or
even eliminate the risks of direct exposure. It is difficult to
imagine that anybody anywhere would work with poultry -
especially raw meat products - without careful washing of hands
and working surfaces before and afterwards, yet it seems that
this is the most common means for the infection to spread.
There has been a fair bit of conjecture that migrating wildfowl
could spread the virus over a wider territory, but when examined
more closely, this idea seems unlikely. For one thing, while
many wild birds are known to carry one or more avian flu viruses
in their system - generally these viruses are dormant.
In order to be transmitted, the virus must be active within the
bird's system, which will cause the bird to become sick, and in
turn will cause the virus to be shed through saliva, nasal
secretions, and feces.
If you consider the normally occurring stresses and strains on
migrating fowl, it seems highly unlikely that such a sick bird
would be able to migrate in the first place! Sick birds are
rarely if ever seen in migrating flocks - they just don't have
the energy to keep up, and instead stay behind until they are
well enough to travel.
In Britain, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is
trying to institute a ban on bird fairs, saying that the trade
in birds, especially wild-caught birds, could pose a greater
risk of exposure than natural migration patterns.
Meanwhile, Dutch researchers have injected a virus sample taken
from a fatal human case into short-haired domestic kittens, and
discovered that cats can apparently be infected with, carry, and
transmit the H5N1 virus. Their results stated that six kittens
became infected, but did not mention the total number of test
subjects used in their sample.
One of the biggest threats to bird owners and their flocks is
fear. In May of 2004, an outbreak of an H6 avian influenza virus
in British Columbia's Fraser Valley led to what officials termed
'depopulation' of 40 commercial chicken farms. But the toll did
not stop there; several local bird hobbyists keeping a variety
of birds ranging from pigeons to parrots were forced to allow
authorities to 'depopulate' their birdrooms and aviaries.
No testing was done, the officials simply took all the birds
they could find within a certain range from the commercial
farms, whether there was any real risk of exposure or not.
In one case, the birds were very expensive imported Birmingham
Roller pigeons. While his birds were being carted off for
suffocation, some wild pigeons and ducks landed on or near the
owner's barn. He questioned the officials about what they were
going to do about all the wild birds that had a much greater
chance of having been exposed, only to be told that control of
these wild birds was not in their mandate!
Key West Chicken activist Katha Sheehan of 'The Chicken Store'
(http://www.thechickenstore.com/) which among other activities
operates a chicken rescue, says, "I hardly know where to begin,
defending the Key West chickens against all these allegations of
being responsible for a bird flu that isn't even in the USA yet!
I always wash my hands when I come home off the streets, after
using the bathroom, and before eating. Do you? Do your kids?"
She goes on to say, "If you can't 'do' the flu, don't eat the
meat! Factory-farmed chicken eggs and meat products from stores
are more likely to bring in foreign bugs, than the Conch rooster
standing in the driveway. Germs are everywhere! There are staph
germs on that hand railing, tetanus in that potting soil and
hantavirus in that deer tick- possibly."
It seems to me that there is an obvious four-step solution for
pet birds owners, regarding the avian flu; first, attempt to
minimize as much as possible any exposure of your pets (feline
as well as avian) to wild birds; secondly, avoid direct contact
with the feces from potentially exposed birds; thirdly, always
be careful to wash and disinfect hands and surfaces thoroughly
when preparing food, especially when handling raw meat; and
fourth, be certain that meat and eggs from potentially
susceptible birds are thoroughly cooked before being eaten.
As Katha Sheehan points out, "What is important is good living
to keep a healthy immune system. Most of these germs will never
find a foothold with us, and panic can only get in the way of
rational decision-making. When you find a pigeon (or waterbird)
dead on the ground, just remember that they, too, sometimes die
of old age! As a civilization we should be far beyond that
hysterical and barbaric 'holocaust as a solution'."
I can't agree more.
by R C McDonald
Copyright © Oct 2005
Reprinted with Permission
*** Cats and the avian flu;
*** British Bird fairs thought to bring greater bird flu risk;
*** Dr Horowitz on infectious diseases;
*** For more info on avian influenza and food safety issues,
see the World Health Organization website at;
*** The US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention's paper on Avian Influenza;