- Cases of bird flu are spreading in the U.S. earlier than experts had expected.
- A version of the avian flu was detected in Minnesota in August.
- The disease has been spreading among wild bird species and in birds on poultry farms.
- Only people in close contact with infected birds risk contracting bird flu.
- To date, there have been no documented cases of human-to-human transmission.
Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) was confirmed in a Meeker County, Minnesota, commercial turkey flock in August, according to the state’s board of animal health.
“While the timing of this detection is a bit sooner than we anticipated, we have been preparing for a resurgence of the avian influenza we dealt with this spring,” Senior Veterinarian Dr. Shauna Voss said in a statement.
Health officials said the current outbreak was detected after a Meeker County turkey flock showed increased bird deaths in late August, confirming HPAI infection by testing.
The flock was “immediately quarantined” and euthanized to prevent disease transmission. Officials confirmed that poultry from the infected flock did not enter the food system.
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health (MBAH) emphasized that biosecurity is paramount to stopping the spread of HPAI.
“Flock owners large and small, from commercial operations to backyard flocks, should review their biosecurity measures to maintain the health of their birds,” the MBAH said in a statement.
They confirmed that a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) control area was established around the HPAI-infected flock, and animal health officials are identifying all premises with commercial or backyard poultry in that area.
These commercial flocks will be quarantined and go through routine disease surveillance to ensure HPAI isn’t spreading.
While previous U.S. outbreaks of HPAI in wild bird species and poultry usually ended with warmer weather, this year’s outbreak continued in parts of North America over the summer.
Science reported that while a 2015 outbreak primarily affected Midwest poultry farms, the disease has now spread to “practically” the entire continental United States and infected a record 99 wild bird species.
If migratory birds will cause further disease spread this fall is “the million-dollar question,” Bryan Richards, emerging disease coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, told Science.
Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, told Healthline that Bird flu or Avian Influenza is a variant known as the H5N1 Influenza strain.
“It has resulted in rare outbreaks in humans, most notably in the late 1990s in China,” he said. “One outbreak affected more than 800 persons with a case fatality rate of 50 percent.”
“One person in Colorado in late August 2022 was detected with an H5N1 strain or bird flu, though it was different than the strain in China from years ago,” he added.
Dr. Charles Bailey, medical director for infection prevention at Providence Mission Hospital and Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Southern California, confirmed that there had been one human case in a person who was working on culling birds suspected of harboring bird flu in Colorado.
“There has been no evidence of human-to-human spread; the main current risk is among those having direct contact with potentially infected birds,” he added.
Bailey pointed out that HPAI outbreaks in birds over the past 25 years have failed to result in sustained spread among humans, which in most instances affected only a handful of people who had come into contact with infected poultry workers.
Fichtenbaum said the strain circulating in animals would first need to adapt to circulate more frequently in humans.
“It is really suited to animals/birds,” he said, adding that in the past, “human infections can be quite serious.”
“The [people] highest at risk would be those in close contact with birds,” said Anjali Bharati, DO, an ER physician at Lenox Health Greenwich Village, New York.
Bharati noted that there is some concern that this virus can be passed to humans through feces in their backyard.
“From my understanding, that is very rare,” she continued.
Asked what the symptoms of bird flu in people are, Bharati explained that they are very similar to cold or flu and may include:
- Runny nose
- Body ache
“There has never been a reported case of bird flu connected to consuming or handling store-bought poultry,” said Hanna Newman, MPH, director of infection prevention at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
She explained that the risk of transmission occurs only when the virus is breathed in or contacts mucous membranes through droplets or dust in the air.
“Store-bought poultry is not a concern for bird flu spread in humans,” said Newman. “However proper food handling is important to prevent food poisoning in general.”
She said this includes washing your hands before and after handling, using a separate cutting board for raw chicken, keeping it separate from fresh foods, cooking to at least 165ºF, and washing all dishes, utensils, and countertops after preparation.
In late August, an outbreak of bird flu was detected in a Minnesota turkey flock. Health officials say this is sooner than they anticipated, but they were prepared.
Experts say while the disease can spread to humans, this is rare, and symptoms are similar to a cold or flu.
Store-bought poultry remains safe to eat if you follow safe handling and preparation guidelines.