Avian influenza serious, but no reason for panic

April 11, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

Panic or pandemic? It seems more and more we read or hear about the looming threat of avian influenza.

Yes, avian influenza, not bird flu. It is time we stop dumbing down things, even if the reason is to reduce panic.

So what is Avian influenza? Avian influenza (AI) is an infectious disease of birds caused by type A influenza viruses.

Symptoms in birds range from mild illness to epidemics of highly contagious, rapidly fatal disease. Contact of domestic flocks with wild, migratory ducks and geese (which often carry AI virus) can cause outbreaks of the disease.

How does AI affect humans? Avian influenza viruses normally only infect birds and pigs.

The H7 strain, that infected chickens at two farms in Delaware in 2004, is not known to infect humans.

The first documented infection of humans occurred in Hong Kong in 1997, when the H5N1 strain caused severe respiratory disease in 18 humans (six died).


Extensive investigation of that outbreak found that close contact with live infected poultry was the source of human infection. Genetic studies determined that the virus had jumped directly from birds to humans.

The spread of infection in birds increases the possibility for infection of humans. There is concern that as more humans become infected, the risk increases that persons infected with both avian and human influenza stains could become "mixing vessels" for the viruses, resulting in a new, dangerous strain of influenza virus that could spread easily from person to person.

As of this writing, avian influenza H5N1 has been discovered in a dead migratory swan in Scotland. There is no indication of infection in the U.K.'s domestic poultry. The virus entered the European Union in February, and more than two dozen countries on three continents have reported initial outbreaks this year.

Germany last week detected its first H5N1 infection in domestic poultry. France is the only other EU country to report a domestic poultry outbreak, on a turkey farm.

Thus far, there have been 192 human cases resulting in 109 deaths. The two countries with the highest death tolls are Vietnam and Indonesia. In fact, 88 percent of all deaths have occurred in Eastern Asia, a part of the world whose culture comes into very close contact with live poultry. Here, open area live poultry markets are the norm.

To date, nearly 99 percent of the human cases of avian influenza has been bird-to-human transmission. The virus is passed through feces or mucus discharge, chicken sneezes if you will.

The vast majority of Americans only come in contact with poultry and eggs in the grocery store, greatly reducing the risk of contracting the disease. In addition, proper cooking of poultry products to an internal temperature of at least 165F has long been the recommendation of the USDA. This temperature kills viruses and bacteria of all kinds.

We certainly should not take avian influenza lightly, but there is no reason to panic either.

So what to do?

If you raise poultry, strict biosecurity and sanitary measures are essential. Additionally, be vigilant and if you suspect an infection, get your birds tested.

If you consume poultry products, remember this: Eat your beef rare if you wish but your poultry well done.

Until next time, enjoy some fried chicken.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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