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Can bird flu affect people?


By Eduardo Gonzales, MD

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What are the chances that the bird flu that has already killed thousands of chicken in Pampanga will spread to humans? How can we prevent the disease from being transmitted to people? —

Bird flu or avian influenza, which is caused by any of a number of strains of the influenza A virus, is primarily—but not exclusively—a disease of birds. Some strains of the virus can affect humans, sometimes catastrophically. For example, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 that accounted for an estimated 20 to 100 million human deaths worldwide is believed to have been caused by a mutant bird flu virus that initially jumped from bird to man and then became capable of person-to-person transmission.

Current outbreak poses very little risk to humans

The bird flu outbreak that has killed close to 40,000 poultry heads before it was detected by authorities this early August, and has already spread to Nueva Ecija, is caused by an H5N1 strain of the flu virus. So far, no person has been infected by the virus and findings of our Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) indicate that this particular strain does not affect humans. But since the findings of the RITM are not conclusive, test samples have been sent to a laboratory in Australia to confirm whether or not the virus is in fact, harmless to humans.

In any case, it doesn’t seem like this bird flu virus will spread to humans, but there is no guarantee that it will not mutate and become capable of infecting people in the near future. Thus, it is important that we observe the necessary precautions to prevent getting infected with the virus.

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How the birdflu spreads

Bird flu is transmitted in birds through contact with saliva, nasal secretions or feces. Among wild birds, which are possibly the source of the ongoing infection in Pampanga, bird flu usually causes only minor or no symptoms, but among domesticated birds and poultry, the disease spreads fast and is highly fatal.

In humans, the main route of infection with bird flu is via direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their droppings. The risk of the virus infecting humans is highest during slaughter, de-feathering, butchering, and preparation of poultry for cooking.

Bird flu infected chicken is safe to eat

Poultry products infected or contaminated with the current avian flu virus are safe to eat provided they are fully cooked. This assurance was given by Department of Health (DOH) assistant secretary Eric Tayag.

Measures the government is taking and what the public can do

To prevent the bird flu virus from infecting people, first and foremost, the spread of the disease among chicken must be stopped. To this end, the government, through the Department of Agriculture (DA), has culled 200,000 chickens and ducks in Pampanga and close to the same number in Nueva Ecija that have possibly been infected by the virus. It has also quarantined areas where the outbreak was first reported. The DA has also banned the movement or transport of birds, fowl, or their byproducts from Luzon to the Visayas and Mindanao. It is also conducting a nationwide inspection of poultry farms.

In so far as the public is concerned, DOH authorities say that the best way to prevent getting infected by the bird flu virus is by simply observing proper hygiene and sanitation. Personal hygiene is the most effective way to prevent not only the flu virus but infectious diseases in general. Personal hygiene refers to maintaining cleanliness of the body. It is accomplished by regular bathing, hair grooming, hand washing, teeth brushing, nail trimming, ear cleaning, etc.

Lastly, people who handled dressed chicken in bird flu affected areas and who develop fever or other symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection should seek consultation in a medical clinic or hospital.

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