Avian Flu - Questions and Answers

Q and A about Avian (Bird) Flu

Consumers in Iowa and the United States have little to be concerned about with respect to Avian Flu and their food supply.  At the present time, the most serious strain of the flu virus has not infected anyone in the United States.  Researchers have shown that the current H5N1 version of the flu is transmitted poorly to humans from birds.

What is bird flu?

Avian or bird flu is a viral illness of the Influenza A category.  These viruses infect a variety of animals including humans, birds, pigs, seals, and others.  The specific viruses that infect birds (Avian influenza) are widely spread in the wild bird population where it seems to be of little consequence.  However, domesticated poultry appear to be much more susceptible and likely to become ill with death following exposure avian flu viruses.  Avian flu viruses do not usually infect humans or are spread through the human population.

How is bird flu spread?

Avian flu viruses are spread from bird to bird in feces, mucus, and saliva.  Live bird markets and large scale poultry farms are of particular concern for animal scientists as the illness can rapidly spread among flocks.  The majority of humans who have been exposed appear to have been around infected live or dead poultry.  The viruses do not seem to be spread effectively from human to human.

Is Avian flu related to human influenza virus?

The Influenza A family contains subtypes of viruses that have specific hosts including humans, birds, and other organisms.  The current human flu viruses are subtypes of influenza A and a specific influenza B.  While the avian flu viruses are of the family influenza A, there appear to be significant differences that prevent avian viruses from circulating widely in the human population. 

Why is there a concern for humans?

Since 1997, there have been several reported incidences of humans being made ill from avian flu viruses.  These cases have been primarily in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe with a report of a cluster in the Netherlands.  In all cases it appears that those made ill had direct contact with infected live or dead birds.  It is common in Asian cultures to purchase live chickens and ducks at the market.  In the cluster of illnesses in the Netherlands, almost all illnesses were confined to workers of poultry farms and their families.  At this time it does not appear that bird flu is spread effectively by human to human contact.  This is further borne out by the fact that world wide less than 250 people have been made ill with the specific virus.

Who is most at risk?

People most at risk are those directly involved in live animal production.  In Asia, the farm to fork trail may be only several feet long with humans and poultry living closely in the same environment.  In the United States, those most at risk would be poultry farm workers.  However, because of extensive testing and control measures, exposure in these workers is limited.

Is my chicken contaminated with bird flu?

The virus has not been found in North America including US flocks.  There is no evidence that bird flu is found on chickens available in grocery stores or other retail establishments.  Epidemiological data also indicates that there is no evidence to suggest that bird flu is transmitted in processed poultry products. 

Is my 4-H poultry project safe?

Yes, since the virus has not been found in North America, you can be certain that your 4-H project bird will NOT have avian influenza.  However, you should practice good hand hygiene after touching or handling the bird and after cleaning the cage or handling used litter material.

Is organic or free range safer than conventionally grown poultry?

The entire poultry supply in the United States is safe regardless of the source.  No birds in North America, either wild or domesticated, have been identified as carrying the virus.

Is it safe to eat wild game birds that I have shot?

To date, no wild migratory birds have been found with the virus in North America.  If you hunt, there are some precautions that you should take when handling harvested birds.  The National Wildlife Health Center recommends that hunters:

    • Sick or diseased birds should be avoided.
    • Wear disposable durable gloves while handling and dressing birds. 
    • Practice good hand hygiene by washing your hands with soap after dressing the birds.  If your hands are not visibly soiled, alcohol based (62% minimum ethyl alcohol) hand sanitizers will work.  You must cover all surfaces of your hand with the sanitizer and it must remain for 15 seconds.
    • Do not cross contaminate yourself during dressing by smoking, eating or drinking.
    • Cook all game birds to 165°F minimum.

    What about other poultry products?

    Eggs may be contaminated with fecal material.  Proper handling and sanitation will control the viruses in eggs.  Proper cooking will inactivate the virus.

    What is the US government doing to keep us safe?

    The US government has implemented some important firewalls to ensure that the virus does not enter the country.  These firewalls include:

      • importation restrictions of any poultry or poultry products from countries where Avian Influenza has been found;
      • quarantine of any live birds, including pets, from these countries;
      • increased surveillance of backyard flocks, commercial flocks, and wild bird populations for the virus;
      • encouragement of the poultry flock biosecurity measures outlined in “Biosecurity for the birds” program.

      How can I be sure that my poultry and eggs are safe to eat?

      Proper cooking of poultry will destroy avian flu.  The proper temperature recommended by US Department of Agriculture and ISU Extension is 165°F.  At this temperature, the poultry is safe to consume.  It should be noted that this temperature is no different from the temperature recommended for safe poultry.  Salmonella and other pathogens are destroyed by cooking to this temperature.  Egg products should be cooked until the yolk and white are hard.

      What is the bottom line on avian flu?

      It is highly unlikely that people in the US will be made ill from the avian flu virus since we have little contact with live poultry.  Since there is no evidence that suggests the virus is transmitted by consuming poultry products, consumers should feel safe in continued consumption of poultry and eggs.  These products are safe as long as they are properly prepared to usual guidelines.

      Cross contamination and proper hand washing will also aid in preventing the spread of pathogenic bacteria and viruses.  Washing cutting boards, utensils, and counters with hot soapy water will prevent the contamination of the home environment.  Washing hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds will help reduce the spread of illness causing viruses including human influenza, Norovirus, SARS, and others.

      What is the bottom line on avian flu?

      It is highly unlikely that people in the US will be made ill from the avian flu virus since we have little contact with live poultry.  Consumers should feel safe in continued consumption of poultry and eggs.  These products are safe as long as they are properly prepared to usual guidelines.


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      • Article History
        • Revision Date: 6/22/2010

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      Proper handwashing is essential to preventing food contamination. The correct steps for handwashing include: - Wet hands with warm water - Using soap and water, vigorously rub hands together for at least 20 seconds - Rinse all soap from hands under warm running water. - Turn off the faucet using a single-use paper towel. - Dry hands with a different single-use towel.

      Source: Food and Drug Administration


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