- What is bird flu?
“Bird flu” is the common name for Avian Influenza, a respiratory disease found in birds which comes in two forms: Highly Pathogenic (HPAI) and Low Pathogenic (LPAI). The specific strain of bird flu that’s been in the news lately is called HPAI (H5N1) — “H5N1” for short.
- How do chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other domesticated birds catch bird flu?
The most common way for poultry to be exposed to bird flu is through direct contact with an infected carrier — most often a wild bird. The disease can also be transmitted through contaminated feed, water, or cages.
- How many people worldwide have contracted bird flu? How did they get it?
According to the World Health Organization, there have been 281 reported cases and 171 deaths from bird flu (as of March 2007). The vast majority of infections have occurred in rural villages in Southeast Asia, where people can catch bird flu through their daily contact with live, infected birds.
- How many human cases of bird flu have there been in the United States?
There are no domestic cases of people contracting H5N1. Two Americans have been infected with another less common strain (H7N2): a Virginian poultry farmer in 2002 and a New Yorker with a serious, non-related health condition in 2003. Both people fully recovered.
At a Texas poultry farm in 2004, there was a small outbreak of H5N2, which is far less contagious among birds than H5N1. Subsequent investigations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that this strain had a very low mortality rate among birds and could not have infected people.
Before 2004, the last confirmed cases of bird flu in the United States were in Pennsylvania in 1983 and 1984. (This was also the H5N2 strain.) There has never been an outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N1 among birds in the United States.
- Can I get bird flu from eating cooked chicken or turkey? By handling raw meat?
No. Cooking poultry at normal heat kills the virus. Normal and proper care before cooking prevents contamination of any sort.
There are no documented cases of anyone contracting bird flu from handling raw meat — domestically or abroad. And there is essentially no chance that the meat you buy at the grocery store is going to be infected anyway. (See Question 10)
- If bird flu can be killed through hand-washing and proper food handling, why is it being treated like such a big news story?
People have a natural tendency to become scared about risks they don’t understand. And when we don’t have control over a situation, our fear reflexes kick in. These traits give us a natural tendency to commit what University of Chicago Professor of Law Cass Sunstein calls “probability neglect.” That is, we fixate on some threats (like food-borne illness) and mentally inflate their actual prevalence, which is normally pretty low.
Activists know we have this predisposition, and they exploit it to advance their agenda. The news media, always eager to attract attention with apocalyptic headlines, can usually be counted on to give them a platform.
- Are most Americans panicking for no good reason?
Yes. No one in the United States has ever been diagnosed with H5N1 bird flu. And there are plenty of safeguards in place to prevent an infected bird from coming into the country.
But activist groups, mostly environmental and animal rights organizations, have done a great job stoking bird flu fears. And few government officials are doing anything to hold the fear mongers accountable.
As a result, false messages about bird flu have had a good deal of staying power. Recent public polling conducted by Opinion Research Corporation for the Center for Consumer Freedom showed that 47 percent of Americans believe eating cooked chicken is one way to contract bird flu. This, of course, isn’t true. But it’s a frequent talking point in activist campaigns, especially those conducted by animal rights groups.
- Are “free range” birds safer from bird flu infections than ones raised in cages?
There is no evidence that confined birds are more vulnerable to disease than “non-confined” birds. Poultry in controlled environments are probably safer because farmers can keep them from coming into contact with wild birds and other potential bird-flu carriers. So-called “free range” birds aren’t protected by as many safeguards.
- Are conventional farming techniques creating increasingly virulent bird flu strains?
This is a popular talking point of environmental and animal rights activists who want to blame modern poultry production for bird flu. But most of the world’s bird flu outbreaks have occurred on small, rural farms.
- Which activist groups are spreading needless bird-flu fears? What’s their motive?
The Class-A fear mongers are the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Both groups are motivated by a fringe ideology known as “animal rights,” which puts people and chickens on the same moral footing. They are inciting bird-flu fears in order to persuade Americans to give up eating chicken, which fits nicely with their overall agenda.
- What’s the chance that a bird flu outbreak among humans could be as bad as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic?
Very low. There are two ways that bird flu could cause a serious problem. First, a highly pathogenic strain (like H5N1) might mutate in such a way that it becomes easily transmissible from human to human. There is no evidence to indicate that any such mutations have taken place during the 40 years since the first reported case of H5N1 bird flu.
Second, a person could contract the common flu and bird flu at the same time, and the two could “reassort,” forming a more virulent hybrid flu virus. But research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that such a hybrid would not pass easily between animals, and is not prone to mutations that enable it to transmit easily.
A March 2006 study published in the journal Nature found that bird flu also can’t infect the cells lining the human nose, throat, or sinuses. The lead researcher, University of Wisconsin virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, told WebMD that “the virus does not spread well in humans.”
Beyond the fact that bird flu isn’t likely to become infectious in humans, the tremendous improvements in our ability to control disease over the last century make it unlikely that we’ll see an outbreak anywhere near the scale of the Spanish flu pandemic. We have more effective quarantines and excellent long-distance communication. The field of virology, an area of scientific inquiry that teaches how and why such outbreaks happened, was virtually nonexistent in the early 20th century.
- What safeguards are in place to prevent an infected bird from getting into the United States?
The U.S. government has implemented bans or tight controls on the importation of birds or other potential carriers from areas that have reported an outbreak. (Almost all of the chicken and turkey sold in the U.S. is produced domestically.) And scientists are constantly testing migratory birds in Alaska and along the West coast.
In 2005, Congress sent an additional $23 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the specific purpose of creating a domestic bird flu control program.
Over 97 percent of all U.S. poultry producers test their flocks for bird flu before they’re even brought into the processing plant. They have never found an infection of highly pathogenic bird flu. But if they do, guidelines are in place for quarantining the source and culling any flocks that might have been infected.
- What is bird flu’s mortality rate among humans?
About the same as the common flu, according to one major study on the issue. In 2004, researchers found that of the 45,000 people in a rural Vietnamese community that had recently had an H5N1 outbreak, 650 to 750 exhibited flu-like symptoms that were probably caused by avian influenza. In that same year, the World Health Organization reported 20 confirmed deaths from bird flu in Vietnam.
That means the human mortality rate for H5N1, at least for this outbreak in Vietnam, was about 0.71 percent (1 out of every 140 cases — a little more than the mortality rate of regular, seasonal flu). Also, this outbreak took place in an area without ready access to advanced medical technologies found in most areas of the United States.
- Has there been an increase in the number of reported bird flu cases in humans over the last decade?
Yes, but that increase has been small and is most likely the result of improvements in our ability to monitor and track infections. According to the World Health Organization, the biggest jump in the last 5 years was between 2004 (46 cases) and 2005 (97 cases).
- What tools does the United State government have at its disposal to prevent and contain a bird flu outbreak?
In 2005, Congress funneled an additional $23 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a domestic bird flu control program. The Department of Health and Human Services has stockpiled 2.7 million doses of bird flu vaccines to inoculate first responders in the event of an outbreak. And British researchers recently discovered that a widely available hand spray can kill the bird flu bug in less than 30 seconds.