Avian flu is spreading through U.S. poultry flocks like a cold through a preschool, and now, we have the first case of a human falling ill with avian flu confirmed by health officials in Colorado. The person who got sick with bird flu had been working with chicken at an industrial farm, and consumers are wondering whether you can get avian flu from just handling chicken, what the symptoms are, and whether it is safe to buy, cook and eat chicken without the risk of contracting the virus.

The potential spread of another highly contagious and potentially deadly virus, when we are already coping with another steep rise in COVID cases, is more than the mind can bear. And yet, information is critical right now as avian flu is raging across the country. Here is everything you need to know about avian flu, including where it comes from, how it spreads, and how to avoid it and stay healthy while this newest epidemic rages on.

First, a word of reassurance; Transmission from birds to humans is rare and no sustained human-to-human transmission has been observed in the U.S. or the U.K. However, when contracted by humans, avian flu can cause severe disease and death, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, aka the European version of the CDC.

What Is Avian or Bird Flu?

Avian (or bird) flu is caused by the same kind of virus that causes any type of flu, but it occurs naturally among birds, according to the State Department of Health and Human Services of New Hampshire. The bird flu is a highly pathogenic H5 type of virus of which there are many variants, including H5N1 and H5N9, among others, that are often deadly to domestic birds such as chickens and can be transmitted from birds to people. Cases of person-to-person spread are not known.

In late April 2022, a Colorado man became the first human in the U.S. to test positive for bird flu, the CDC announced Thursday. A previous case of avian flu in humans had occurred in the U.K., back in December of 2021. Both cases were in men who had worked with sick chickens.

The Colorado infection comes as the H5N1 strain of bird influenza is tearing through poultry farms, and experts suspect it had been spreading in wild birds for months prior. The new outbreak has caused the deaths of millions of domestic birds, some dying after contracting the disease, but many more deaths are attributed to the difficult choice farmers are forced to make to cull their flocks in order to curb the virus' relentless spread.

The Colorado man who got infected is an inmate in the Montrose County Correctional system who had been enlisted to work with poultry in a work-release employment program at a commercial farm, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He is under the age of 40. and has since recovered from his symptoms, including fatigue and respiratory inflammation. The reports confirmed that the patient was treated with the antiviral drug oseltamivir, an influenza medication commonly sold under the brand Tamiflu.

Can Bird Flu Spread to Humans?

This strain of bird flu can sicken humans who come into contact with sick birds, generally through inhaling the virus through the nasal passages, into the lungs, where it can sicken someone just as other flu viruses can, which is how authorities believe this man became ill.

In prior epidemics, there have been other cases of humans getting bird flu but it was exceedingly rare, according to the CDC, which reported back in 2017 that a specific strain of avian flu, called the H7N9, did not actually sicken birds but had been shown to infect people. This H7N9 strain was first reported in China back in March of 2013 and subsequently, there were at least 6 outbreaks there, but very few reported human infections during that time.

Why Is This Outbreak Dangerous?

The newly-arrived bird flu now raging in the U.S. began not in farmed bird flocks, but in wild bird populations, according to scientists, who believe that this is why it will be persistent and why culling flocks may not work to knock it out this time.

As of early April, over 24 million poultry birds like chickens and turkeys had already died, either from the virus itself or by culling by farmers to prevent the spread. Unlike a similar outbreak seven years ago, this one is unlikely to just burn itself out, according to reporting by NPR.

As long as the virus can spread in populations of wild birds, experts explain, it can pass to poultry farms since unlike the stationary populations of farmed birds, some wild birds such as eagles can live long enough to carry the virus across vast distances.

"Scientists believe that wild migratory birds brought this virus to North America a few months ago," reports NPR. Since the start of the outbreak, the flu has been reported in more than 40 species across 30 states and in species from crows to pelicans to bald eagles.

"It's somewhat surprising how widespread it is already in North America," Jonathan Runstadler, an influenza researcher at Tufts University, told NPR in April. "It's clearly able to persist and transmit from year to year in parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, and I don't think we should be surprised if that's going to be the case here."

Avian Flu Is Here to Stay

As the virus moves across the country and potentially sticks around for years, the virus will likely mutate as it spreads to new animal species, according to Richard Webby a flu researcher at St. Jude's Children's research hospital who predicts it will continue to evolve as it gets a chance to comes into contact with other flu viruses are already in circulation here.  "What that means for the virus in terms of how it evolves, how it changes, we just don't really know," he told a reporter for NPR.

Bird flu can cause widespread illness and death among birds, though there are many different strains, which vary in strength. All known subtypes of influenza circulate among wild birds, which are considered the natural host for influenza A viruses. Not all influenza A strains infect humans, however. Those that do can cause high death rates. There is much concern that a strain that infects people will change and easily transmit from person to person causing a global pandemic that kills millions.

History of Avian Flu

Avian influenza was first detected in humans in Hong Kong back in 1997, and this first outbreak of H5N1 infected both chickens and people. This was the first time the avian flu had ever spread directly from birds to humans. During this outbreak, 18 people were hospitalized and 6 died, according to the CDC. To control the outbreak 1.5 million chickens were killed.  There have been several other outbreaks in Asia and Europe in the intervening decades.

How the Avian Flu Is Spread

The disease is spread by the saliva, nasal secretions, and feces of infected animals, the CDC says. When other animals or humans come in contact with any of these, they can get the disease by inhaling the virus. The only way to stop its spread is to kill the infected birds. There are several strains circulating among birds, but the H5N1 strain can also infect people who have been in close contact with chickens.

Avian Flu Symptoms

Symptoms of avian flu have can mimic typical influenza-like symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, fever, and muscle aches, all the way up the scale of serious conditions such as eye infections, acute respiratory distress, viral pneumonia, and other severe and life-threatening complications, the CDC explains.

Prevention of Avian Flu

Bird flu spreads easily among birds, so the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that any birds, fowl (e.g., chickens and ducks), exotic birds, and pets, be quarantined before they enter the U.S.

The USDA says It is safe to eat chicken as long as it is thoroughly cooked because cooking kills the virus. Travelers to countries in Asia with documented H5N1 outbreaks are advised to avoid poultry farms, contact with animals in live food markets, and any surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals that may be sick.

Avian Flu Risk Assessment

In a post on the CDC website from 2017 the center's experts warned this but adds that the post has not been kept up to date:

"While the current risk to the public’s health posed by the avian virus is low, the pandemic potential of this virus is concerning.

"Influenza viruses constantly change and it is possible that this virus could gain the ability to spread easily and sustainably among people, triggering a global outbreak of disease (i.e., a pandemic).

"In fact, of the novel influenza A viruses that are of special concern to public health, ...  as having the greatest potential to cause a pandemic, as well as potentially posing the greatest risk to severely impact public health if it were to achieve sustained human-to-human transmission.

That was back in 2017 – but the same potential exists with any virus. To be safe, you may want to stay away from chicken for now. If you do eat it, cook it thoroughly to kill any potential live virus that is on your bird, and wash everything that comes into contact with your chicken in your kitchen.

Bottom Line: Avian Flu is Spreading but Bird to Human Transmission is Rare

An outbreak of avian flu is forcing farmers to cull flocks, and when one Colorado man contracted it, the questions began: Is it another pandemic in the making? As of now, the most endangered are birds, but to be safe, stay away from chicken or cook it well if you eat it.

For more expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition category. 

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