Q&A: On Catching Bird Flu From Birds

Following are questions regarding the likelihood of catching bird flu from birds, along with responses from Dr. Christian Sandrock, assistant professor of clinical medicine, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine & Division of Infectious Diseases, UC Davis School of Medicine, and influenza consultant for the California Department of Health Services and Emergency Medical Services Authority.

Q: Are backyard poultry in North America at risk for being exposed to H5N1 from migrating birds? -- Wallace, Conway, Ark.

A: Yes, they are. Backyard poultry are the most likely source since the main poultry producers use strict biosecurity precautions that limit contact with wild birds. But the private or the small farm owner, they do not necessarily follow these precautions, and that may be a source of contact and spread.

Q: I understand that this virus passes between bird to bird. But, just how would it pass from bird to humans? Is this by touch? Is this a virus that can be airborne and caught in this way? -- Valerie, Centertown, Mo.

A: In the investigation of the cases in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, there usually is sufficient contact with blood and bodily secretions of the bird, not just a 2- to 3-foot closeness that can lead to spread of the common cold. Humans who have been infected with H5N1 have had substantial contact with blood, feces, other secretions. There has been no transmission with cooked poultry products.

Q: Can the virus be spread through bird droppings? -- Tambrey, Richmond Hill, Ontario

A: Yes it can, and this is one of the thoughts of spread in Europe, where contaminated chicken feces are used as fertilizer, and this leads to virus spread in other areas and maybe even as a spread back to wild birds, since poultry feces can be used as a fertilizer in ponds and waterways.

Q: Does the virus stay alive on handrails or other places where birds have been? -- Valerie, Centertown, Mo.

A: Yes, the virus can stay alive, but only for several hours. In different environments though, such as in a cold pond, it can stay alive for days.

Q: Can imported birds like canaries and lovebirds affect humans here in the U.S. if they carry the virus?" -- Ford, New Hyde Park, N.Y.

A: There is no evidence of this in the U.S. thus far but theoretically they can, as we saw with the infected parrot in England and the infected cats in Germany. Certainly there is a potential risk.

Q: Is there likely to be a way to vaccinate pets in the near future? -- Dean, Kansas City

A: None yet for personal pets. Possibly in the future, but that would likely come after sufficient human vaccines are established.

Q: How can we be sure that preparing chicken is safe? I understand that once the chicken is cooked properly, the virus is killed, however it is the handling of raw chicken that concerns me. --Tambrey, Richmond Hill, Ontario

A: No chicken in the U.S. has the bird flu virus at the present time. Should we find bird flu in our poultry, you would be informed instantly by the CDC and your local health departments. Poultry producers in the U.S. are very alert to the possibility and have plans in place to limit spread, should bird flu appear in their flocks. You are correct; fully cooking chicken [all methods] kills the bird flu virus. Thus, eating well-cooked chicken remains safe -- and delicious.

Of course, preparing the chicken should be accompanied by vigorous and frequent hand washing. This always has been the case. For example, one could acquire salmonella infection by mishandling uncooked chicken today. So, as all our mothers advised us -- wash your hands! And then enjoy your chicken meal.

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