How Worried Should You Be About Avian Flu?

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Avian flu is back in the news following an outbreak in the Midwest and Northeast, and the subsequent euthanizing or death of over 21 million birds since February. Lately, it has been reported that the bird flu is now being blamed for an increase in the cost of turkey and eggs.

Hefty grocery bills (amid the ongoing supply chain crisis and rising inflation, no less) are concerning enough, but you may be wondering how worried you should be about avian flu for other reasons. Here’s what you need to know.

What is avian flu?

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, avian influenza is the disease caused by infection with bird flu Type A viruses, but that isn’t exactly helpful to the average reader. The CDC goes on to note that these viruses naturally spread among wild aquatic birds all over the world, and can affect poultry and other kinds of birds and animals. These Type A viruses have been isolated from over 100 different species of wild birds worldwide, including:

  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Swans
  • Gulls
  • Terns
  • Storks
  • Plovers
  • Sandpipers

According to the CDC, wild aquatic birds—especially dabbling ducks—are considered hosts for the Type A viruses. They can be infected in their intestines and respiratory tracts, though some species may not get sick.

Infected birds can shed the viruses in saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. These viruses are very contagious among birds and some of them can sicken or kill certain domesticated bird species, including chickens, ducks, and turkeys.

When virus outbreaks occur in poultry, we see depopulation—meaning many birds die. Since this is a worldwide issue, a number of health authorities have weighed in. The Australian government, for instance, outlines what happens to birds who are infected: Wild birds don’t usually show symptoms, but depending on their species, they may experience diarrhea, trouble breathing, a swollen head, or death.

Can humans get bird flu?

Here is good news: Avian influenza Type A viruses “usually do not infect people,” according to the CDC. Still, in some rare cases, the bird flu virus has caused illness in humans that have ranged in severity. Some people experienced no symptoms or only mild illness, while others contracted serious diseases that resulted in death. Typically, Asian lineage H7N9 and Asian lineage H5N1 viruses have been responsible for the majority of human illness from bird flu viruses worldwide.

As for whether one of these rare human transmissions could result in more human transmissions—that is to say, whether a person with bird flu could spread it to someone else—that, too, is unlikely. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, A(H5N1) is “poorly adapted to humans,” though it kills a high proportion of the poultry it infects. Overall, “transmission from birds to humans is infrequent and no sustained human-to-human transmission has been observed, however it can cause severe disease in humans.” So probably nothing to stress about, but you also don’t want to get it.

How can humans protect themselves against avian flu?

First of all: Don’t skip your flu shot. While seasonal flu vaccination will not prevent infection with bird flu viruses, the CDC says, it can reduce the risk of getting sick with human and bird flu viruses at the same time.

The CDC also recommends people avoid direct contact with wild birds and even with domestic birds “that look sick or have died.” The organization suggests avoiding touching services that might have been contaminated with wild or domestic bird saliva, mucous, or feces.

If for some reason you have to handle sick poultry, use protective wear, wash your hands thoroughly after touching birds, and change your clothes before contact with healthy domestic poultry and after handling wild birds. Hunters should dress game birds in the field—while wearing gloves.

In the event you’re exposed to an infected bird and become sick within 10 days, isolate at home away from your household members. Any close contacts should monitor their health and talk to a doctor if they develop symptoms within 10 days of their exposure.

Properly handling and cooking poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165˚F kills bacteria and viruses—including bird flu viruses. Always handle your raw poultry hygienically and cook all your poultry products, including eggs, all the way through. There is no evidence anyone has gotten bird flu after eating properly cooked poultry products.

So, what’s going on right now?

The price of turkey and eggs is up as a highly contagious strain of bird flu moves across the United States. According to Axios, Arkansas—the second-largest producer of chicken in the U.S.—hasn’t reported any cases, though an expert told that outlet the whole country should remain on “high alert,” because the current outbreak involves a new bird flu strain.

Citing market analysis company Urner Barry, Axios reports the average wholesale price for a dozen large eggs in the Midwest was $2.94 at the start of this week. A year ago, the price was $1.03—a 185% increase. The wholesale price for a pound of fresh turkey breast was up nearly 200% Monday when compared with the same day last year. However, Urner Barry senior vice president Russ Whitman told Axios that chicken prices are higher more because of continued demand for the meat, than due to the effects of bird flu.

Right now, the outbreak is mostly contained in the Northeast and Midwest. Most of the chicken in the United States comes from the Southeast, which has not been impacted yet.

Should you be worried?

You can get bird flu, but it’s unlikely. Don’t touch birds if you can help it, always cook your poultry and eggs all the way through, and wash your hands. Stay up to date on the latest news about the outbreak and expect to pay more for meat and eggs at the grocery store (though you were probably doing that already).

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