There’s currently a scare regarding the avian flu, also called the bird flu or avian influenza. This is not just an Indian phenomenon but a global one. The avian flu, which started off in countries outside India, is currently in Denmark, France, the UK (United Kingdom) as well as in South Korea. Parts of Europe and Asia have also been affected by the bird flu.

Bird flu is a viral infection that can infect not only birds but also humans and other animals. H5N1 is the most common form/strain of bird flu. The current avian flu is caused by the H5N8 strain, which is weaker and less-lethal as compared to the H5N1 strain.

The good news for you is that this disease rarely happens in humans. The chances of getting infected are high in people who are closely associated with taking care of birds in poultry farms. "Poultry" can be defined as domestic fowls, including chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks, raised for the production of meat or eggs.

Let’s take a quick look at the origin of bird flu, its causes, symptoms & risk factors in infected humans, and also understand if it is contagious, how it can be diagnosed and treated.

Origin of Bird Flu

The avian flu is caused by a Type A Avian Influenza Virus (viruses that are capable of infecting animals and cause flu-like symptoms in humans) and it usually originates from wild birds like ducks and geese. It is thought that the disease is transmitted through droppings, saliva, and nasal secretions to domestic birds. The close proximity of chickens in farms helps to transmit the infection rapidly amongst the birds.

  • The H5N1 strain arose in the late 1990s and is known as the most fatal (deadly) strain of bird flu. 

  • Another strain, the H7N9 was identified in China in 2013. In 2015, the H5N2 strain was found in the USA (United States of America).

  • The current 2021 bird flu strain is named H5N8 which is currently less dangerous than the H5N1 strain.

Causes of Bird Flu

Bird flu is caused by the Influenzae virus that mostly prefers to live in animals. Influenza viruses mutate (change in form or nature) easily and these mutations are responsible for giving rise to newer strains.

Bird flu is very contagious in birds; it is not very contagious to humans, including poultry workers. The first case of human infection with bird flu usually comes from a poultry farmer/worker and then spreads to the caregivers and so on.

In humans, bird flu is mainly caused due to:

  • Through direct skin-to-skin contact with infected birds (chickens, for example) while handling them at poultry farms or through consumption of infected birds. 

  • Through contact with infected droppings and secretions of birds at poultry farms, meat centers, and bird cages.

Symptoms of Bird Flu

The human symptoms of bird flu are rare, mild, and similar to those of a simple cold in most cases. These include:

  • Fever

  • Cough

  • Body aches/muscle pain and joint pain

  • Sore throat

  • Nausea, headache, and vomiting

  • Lethargy and insomnia (prolonged, irregular, or disturbed sleep)

  • Eye infections in some cases

  • Breathing difficulty, mainly due to a blocked or a stuffy nose

Risk Factors for Bird Flu

Risk factors include caring for sick birds, killing sick birds, and eating or consuming sick/infected birds. Given the large number of people who come in contact with poultry every day, the number of human cases of bird flu remain rare and are controllable, across the world.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Bird Flu

Specialized tests are needed to detect the presence of the avian virus in patients who show possible symptoms. The virus can be detected in your sputum (or phlegm, the mucousy substance that you cough up) by several methods, including a culture or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. 

If you are infected with bird flu, your body will make necessary antibodies, which can be later detected through certain blood tests.

Due to the lower number of bird flu cases seen in humans, its treatment requires various medication trials. The best way to prevent bird flu is by limiting your contact with wild birds, especially with their feces and droppings. It is also advisable to not touch any ill or dead birds. 

Lastly, let’s answer one of the biggest questions that arise in your mind as soon as you hear of bird flu: is it safe to eat/consume poultry and eggs?

Bird Flu Scare: Is it Safe to Consume Eggs and Chicken?

Any food item, egg, or bird meat that is thoroughly washed and cooked is safe to eat and does not act as the carrier of the virus.

The good news is that there is little evidence to support the fact that the virus can spread via poultry products like eggs and meat. Food items such as eggs and meat are susceptible to heat, and washing and cooking them makes it safe to consume them.  If the core temperature of your food while cooking is above 70 degrees, it is considered safe to eat that food.

Points to Remember

  • Eat only well-cooked eggs. Boiled eggs are a better option.

  • Eat chicken only if cooked at temperatures above 70 degrees, for a good amount of time. 

  • Buy eggs and poultry from clean and hygienic places or sources only.

  • Do not eat raw poultry or eggs.

  • Use separate knives for poultry and other items in your kitchen.

  • Wash all surfaces thoroughly where raw poultry has been lying and clean all dishes used for cooking and eating poultry with hot water and soap. 

  • Remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling (buying, cooking or eating) poultry and eggs.

Follow the above simple precautions to stay safe and healthy. Consult your physician in case of any symptoms.

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.