Avian Influenza….How scared should you be?

Avian influenza….the bird flu…has been making news again, with a report of spread of a new strain of flu in Asia, and increased numbers of infections in these areas.  The term pandemic is being mentioned again.  Should we be worried?  How much?  Are chickens dangerous?  Are factory farms going to be the end of us all?

The fear is that somewhere, a person is going to get “bird flu” from a chicken, and the strain will have mutated enough to become infective through aerosol transmission.  It will then spread from person to person until it spreads worldwide.  The new strain will evade our immune systems, and virtually everyone will get sick at once, crippling the worlds ability to cope.  There is no doubt that this is a risk….it has happened before….but often not as dramatic as all that.  There have been major pandemics in 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009. 

Now, I’m not a public health official, an international disease specialist, or a soothsayer.  However, I understand the disease better than most people, and I have this public platform, so…here’s my opinion. 

Since 2003, Avian Influenza has infected 565 people worldwide, 331 of these infections have been fatal.  To compare….since 2003, 304 people died from lightning strikes, 480 people have been bitten by sharks, 400,000  people have died from snake bites, and 16,000 people have been killed by crocodiles. 

Since 2003, over 400 million birds were destroyed during the outbreak in 63 countries, either from the disease, or to control the spread.  Influenza is INCREDIBLY contagious from bird to bird, and the disease spreads like wildfire.

Influenza is a bird disease that occasionally crosses species.  Humans, pigs, cats, horses, zebras, and ferrets all get influenza, and there is evidence that all these viruses originated in birds, somewhere in history….the transfer of viruses between species is natural, and not new.

There is NO evidence that influenza can be transmitted to people from prepared chicken meat or eggs.  Transfer of the virus is from intimate contact with live chickens, or their immediate environment.  This most often happens in rural, poor areas where chickens (and sometimes other small farm animals) share the human home, especially at night.  In this way, professional farms actually decrease the risk of transfer of influenza between people and birds, since the number of people intimately involved with hens is decreased.

Don’t get me wrong….the billions of dollars and man hours expended by officials across the world are not wasted, or even poorly spent.  Avian Influenza is a devastating disease of poultry, and is a theoretical risk to human health, and controlling it is a major undertaking.  Our modern technology and information is quite effective however.  The recent bird flu outbreak at its peak was present in 63 countries in 2006, while last year, it was contained to 6 countries…..a huge accomplishment.  The people who look after this are really good at what they do.

Here is my final point…..people ask me if they should be worried about chickens or eggs with respect to influenza.  Think of this….how many live chickens have you ever seen that originated in Asia?  How many chickens are imported into Canada from Asia?  None, and almost none.  If a person was to get sick with influenza in Cambodia and get on a plane, how long would it take to spread the disease?  If bird flu ever does cause major human illness, it will be a very few people who ever get sick from chickens….the rest of us will get sick from other people.  Ironically, there will almost definitely be more chickens who get sick from people than vice-versa.

So, don’t be concerned with chickens causing bird flu.  The virus has never been in the western hemisphere, and likely never will be, unless a pandemic is already underway.  The international health organizations are doing great things to control the virus in the areas where it already is, and spread is containable….although at great expense and effort.  If bird flu comes to Canada, it will be in an airplane, and there won’t be a chicken for miles around.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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