Questions and Answers about Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)

Updated: January 2016

What is avian influenza (bird flu)?

Avian influenza, sometimes called bird flu or avian flu, is a disease of birds, usually carried by wild ducks and other waterbirds. Sometimes, this disease can also spread from wild birds into domestic poultry. Although avian influenza and human influenza are both caused by influenza viruses, each virus generally affects either birds or people, not both. However, some humans have been infected with avian influenza viruses following contact with infected birds.

What is seasonal human influenza (flu)?

Seasonal flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by human influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness and at times can lead to death. Human influenza viruses change a little bit every year which is why people can get sick from the flu more than once. It is also why a new influenza vaccine is produced each year; the vaccine must be made to protect against the particular viruses circulating that year.

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. An influenza pandemic occurs when a new (novel) influenza virus emerges that spreads easily from person to person, and most people do not have immunity. Pandemics can emerge when an animal influenza virus gains the ability for efficient and sustained human-to-human transmission.

Avian influenza is not the same as pandemic influenza, but some avian influenza viruses that are known to have infected people are considered to have "pandemic potential" – if they gain the ability to easily transmit between people. However just the presence of an avian influenza virus in birds or people does not indicate that a pandemic will occur.

Is highly pathogenic avian influenza the same as bird flu? What does highly pathogenic mean?

Like human influenza viruses, there are many types of avian influenza viruses. Avian influenza viruses are categorized based on their genetic makeup, impact on bird health, and other factors as being either "highly pathogenic avian influenza" (HPAI) or "low pathogenic avian influenza" (LPAI). Most avian influenza viruses that are found in wild ducks, other waterbirds, and even poultry are categorized as LPAI and do not cause obvious illness in infected birds. Some of these LPAI viruses can mutate into HPAI viruses which cause severe clinical illness and death in birds, particularly in poultry species such as chickens, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Avian influenza categorized as HPAI can kill large numbers of chickens, turkeys, and other poultry. Some types of avian influenza, such as Asian HPAI H5N1 and H7N9, are known to cause illness in humans while others do not.

Why is bird flu a public health concern?

Several factors make avian influenza a public health concern including:

  • Some strains of avian influenza viruses, including some highly pathogenic H5 and H7 viruses, are known to cause severe illness and death in humans;
  • The potential to cause illness or death in humans is unknown for many strains of avian influenza virus;
  • There have been prolonged outbreaks of pathogenic H5 and H7 viruses among domestic birds, along with ongoing human infections, in several regions of the world despite ongoing control efforts;
  • Although avian influenza viruses are not easily spread from person to person, if they become able to spread easily from person to person, the way human influenza viruses do, they could pose a significant threat to public health. Avian influenza viruses are known to rapidly change, raising the concern that they could evolve into a virus that can spread easily from person to person.

For these reasons, rapid identification and control of avian influenza outbreaks occurring in poultry or other domestic birds are essential measures to protect human health.

How do people get sick from avian influenza viruses?

Avian influenza virus is found in the saliva, nasal discharges, and feces of infected birds. Avian influenza rarely spreads to humans. Most people who have been infected with avian influenza have 1) come into direct, prolonged contact with infected birds, such as chickens or ducks, 2) have been exposed to heavily contaminated environments, or 3) have slaughtered and prepared infected birds for food. In countries such as the United States, which have modern poultry production systems and comprehensive surveillance and control programs for avian influenza in commercial poultry, infected birds are highly unlikely to have public contact or enter the food supply. Avian influenza is not transmitted through eating poultry or eggs that have been properly cooked.

What can I do to protect myself and my family from avian influenza viruses?

There are general precautions that can be taken to reduce the chance of getting sick from any disease carried by animals:

  • Washing hands after contact with animals;
  • Avoiding contact with animals that appear to be sick, including birds;
  • Thoroughly cooking eggs and meat prior to eating, and washing all utensils and preparation areas thoroughly with soap and hot water;
  • Washing hands frequently when preparing food;
  • Owners of domestic livestock, including poultry and waterfowl, should contact their local veterinarian if any of their animals appear sick;
  • Hunters should hunt and process only healthy-appearing animals, wear gloves when handling any animal, clean and disinfect any equipment used for cleaning game, and cook all game thoroughly.

If an avian influenza virus is found in the U.S. that is thought to be a substantial risk to human health, any precautions necessary to prevent human infection will be publicized by the appropriate authorities.

What can I do to protect myself and my family from avian influenza viruses if I am traveling to another country?

Persons traveling internationally to countries where outbreaks of avian influenza that are known to cause disease in humans, such as Asian HPAI H5N1 or H7N9, are occurring in birds should avoid

  • poultry farms
  • live food animal (wet) markets
  • touching any surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals
  • eating any food that is not fully cooked, particularly dishes made with poultry, meat, animal blood, or eggs
  • eating food from street vendors

Travelers should practice good hygiene, including avoiding close contact with people who are sick and washing their hands often. More health information for travelers is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/.

With the concern over avian influenza, is it safe to eat poultry and eggs?

There is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or eggs can be a source of infection from avian influenza. The poultry industry uses stringent surveillance for avian influenza, and outbreaks are quickly detected and controlled before infected products enter the food supply. Because other common diseases such as Salmonella infection can be spread by eating undercooked poultry or eggs, always cook them thoroughly. Wash your hands with soap and hot water after touching any raw meat. Make sure to clean cutting boards and counters used for food preparation immediately after use to prevent cross contamination with other foods.

Will the seasonal influenza vaccine (flu shot) protect me against avian influenza?

The flu shot for humans is meant to protect against the human influenza viruses, not avian influenza viruses. This shot would not be expected to prevent avian influenza infections in humans. A few vaccines against specific strains of avian influenza have been licensed or are under development, but none are currently available.

How does avian influenza spread from place to place?

Healthy birds become infected from direct contact with sick birds, or contact with areas or objects contaminated by sick birds. Much of the spread is probably a result of movement of infected live birds and products to and from markets. Wild birds might also carry the virus but do not always get sick. If they are infected but not sick, they might be able to spread the virus to new areas as they migrate.

Do we have avian influenza in New York State?

LPAI virus strains are commonly found in wild waterfowl and rarely in domestic poultry in the United States. These mild strains of avian influenza usually affect small numbers of birds and sometimes do not cause obvious illness. Occasionally, cases of LPAI are detected in live bird markets. When cases occur, the markets are cleaned, disinfected, and inspected by a State or Federal Animal Health Official prior to reopening. LPAI viruses are generally not considered a human health risk.

HPAI is not commonly found in the U.S., but when it occurs it is of great concern to poultry producers and wildlife authorities because it can result in high mortality of infected birds. During 2014-2015, HPAI was confirmed on many poultry farms in the U.S. and Canada. The type of HPAI currently in the U.S. is not known to affect humans and is different from the Asian HPAI H5N1 virus. To date, there have been no HPAI strains of avian influenza found in New York, but farms here might still be at risk.

Is anything being done to prevent highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza from spreading to New York State?

The risk of HPAI arriving in the U.S. is reduced by federal laws that restrict bird imports from affected countries, and by surveillance and control procedures in poultry. It is illegal to import poultry or poultry products from areas where outbreaks of HPAI are occurring. Now that HPAI has been confirmed in the U.S., many states including New York are taking action to prevent further spread of the disease.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services program is responsible for conducting surveillance and testing for diseases, including avian influenza, among wild birds. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) works with USDA APHIS Wildlife Services to obtain samples for testing from wild waterfowl harvested by hunters. DEC is also testing any unusual die-offs of wild birds to help detect the arrival of HPAI if that occurs. If you observe a group of dead birds in one location, please contact your regional DEC wildlife office.

I found a dead bird in my yard – what should I do?

First, there is no need to report finding a single dead bird. Call your regional Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) office if you see a lot of dead birds in the same place. Additional information about wildlife health is available at the NYSDEC Wildlife Health webpage. You may also visit the NYSDEC Web site for contact information for regional offices. DEC will decide if testing is needed. To dispose of a dead bird, use a shovel and wear gloves to double bag the dead bird and throw it in the trash, or bury it at least three feet deep, away from a stream or other water source. Always wash your hands with soap and water after disposing of a dead bird in this way.

Should we stop feeding birds and not have bird feeders?

There is no need to change your normal practices for feeding wild backyard birds. Waterfowl, such as swans, ducks, and geese, are the type of birds that are most likely to be infected with avian influenza. Although wild backyard birds and pigeons are unlikely to get infected with avian influenza, it is always best to minimize contact with fecal material. Always use gloves when handling ill or dead birds or handling/cleaning up bird droppings, and wash your hands with soap and water immediately afterward.

Should I feed wild ducks, geese, and other waterfowl?

No. There are many reasons that you should not feed ducks and geese. Feeding ducks and geese increases the chance of spreading many diseases that are common among waterfowl, including avian influenza. It makes them tame and may cause them to become a nuisance as they lose their natural behaviors. Unnatural food items such as bread, popcorn, and even seeds have little nutritional value and can make birds sick. It is best to enjoy your local wildlife from a distance and under natural conditions!

Should I stop hunting waterfowl or other game birds?

No. There is no need to stop hunting waterfowl or other game birds. However, hunters should always take simple precautions to protect themselves from exposure to disease, including:

  • Do not handle obviously sick birds or birds found dead.
  • Keep your game birds cool, clean, and dry.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning harvested waterfowl or other game birds.
  • Wear rubber gloves when cleaning waterfowl or other game birds.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after cleaning waterfowl or other game birds.
  • Clean up tools and surfaces immediately with hot, soapy water and disinfect them with a mixture of 10 percent household chlorine bleach in water.
  • Thoroughly cook harvested waterfowl or game birds (165° Fahrenheit).

Are you going to test dead wild birds for avian influenza?

State and federal agriculture and wildlife agencies have developed a surveillance strategy and are routinely testing certain wild birds for avian influenza. Waterfowl, such as ducks, are a top priority to be tested for avian influenza. The most common forms of avian influenza usually involve migratory waterfowl, not backyard birds or songbirds. The vast majority of backyard birds – robins, sparrows, pigeons, cardinals, etc. — do not need to be reported or tested. If you are concerned about dead waterfowl or other birds in your area, contact your regional Department of Environmental Conservation office.

Can other types of animals get avian influenza?

Avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds and rarely spreads to other animals or humans. However, in some places where HPAI avian influenza outbreaks have occurred, dogs, cats, and other mammals have gotten sick and died after eating infected birds.

What can I do to protect my pets from avian influenza?

If you are worried about your pets, do not let them roam outside where they could be exposed to, or eat the remains of, sick or dead animals including wildlife. Many diseases can cause wild birds or other animals to get sick and die, and some of these diseases could be spread to pets that run free. There is no vaccine to protect pets against avian influenza.

Can my pet give me avian influenza?

There have been no confirmed cases of avian influenza transmission between pets such as dogs and cats and humans.

Can I get avian influenza from my neighbor's birds and animals?

You don't have to be concerned that a neighbor's poultry and animals will expose you to avian influenza at this time. If an avian influenza outbreak occurs in your area, additional guidance will be distributed. Avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds and rarely spreads to other animals or humans. Most people who have been infected with avian influenza have come into direct, prolonged contact with sick or dead poultry or have been exposed to heavily contaminated environments.

With the concern over avian influenza, is it safe for my child to take part in projects that involve hatching eggs and raising chicks?

The poultry industry conducts stringent surveillance for avian influenza, and outbreaks are quickly detected and controlled before infected products have much chance to enter the food supply. Also, chickens that get infected with avian influenza quickly become ill and often stop laying eggs. There is little risk of contracting avian influenza from handling eggs from healthy birds. However, eggs and chicks can carry other diseases such as Salmonella. Projects involving hatching eggs and raising chicks should minimize contact and require thorough hand washing after contact occurs. Adults should supervise hand washing for young children. Such projects are not recommended for children under age 5.