By: Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, FAAP
Birds in the United States can be affected by avian flu (also called bird flu or avian influenza). But can it affect your family?
Here's what parents should know.
What causes bird flu?
Bird flu is caused by avian influenza type A viruses, including the avian flu type A(H5N1) that is the most recent strain circulating in our country. The virus is known to infect birds around the world.
Sometimes, wild birds spread the virus and cause outbreaks on poultry farms. In January 2022, the virus was found in wild birds in our country for the first time since 2016. Several states have reported bird flu in poultry flocks and wild birds.
Is bird flu common in birds?
Yes. Bird flu is common in wild birds—especially wild water fowl like ducks and geese. It is spread easily by infected birds that carry the virus in their saliva, nasal secretions and droppings (feces).
When sick birds fly overhead, the virus can spread through their droppings to farms and backyard pens. If your family keeps birds as backyard pets or on small hobby farms, they are also at risk.
Can people get bird flu?
In very rare cases, bird flu can spread to other animals—and to humans. In 2022, the avian flu A(H5) was detected in one person in the United States. That person worked closely with birds, had very mild symptoms and recovered. Health experts will continue to watch for any changes in how the virus spreads.
In people, signs and symptoms of bird flu can include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, pneumonia, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, acute respiratory distress, respiratory failure, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, sometimes neurologic changes (altered mental status, seizures).
Will the flu vaccine protect me from bird flu?
Seasonal flu vaccination will not prevent infection with bird flu viruses. The annual influenza vaccine protects against four strains that are most widely circulating in humans. The risk of kids—or adults—getting seasonal influenza is much greater, which is why annual influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone age 6 months and older.
The risk of kids and adults getting bird flu is very rare. And, getting an annual flu shot will reduce the risk of getting sick with human and bird flu viruses at the same time.
Can bird flu spread through chicken or eggs?
No. You cannot get bird flu from eating fully cooked domestic or wild poultry products like chicken, turkey or duck.
Public health experts keep a close watch for bird flu outbreaks on poultry farms to make sure our food supply is safe. People who work in the poultry industry also follow safety steps to protect themselves and others in case they have close contact with sick birds.
Are eggs safe to eat?
Cooking eggs will kill any virus or bacteria, so they are safe to eat. The germs that can make us sick are found on the egg shell. Salmonella, Campylobacter and other germs get on the egg shell from bird poop. Poultry often carry these germs. (That's why health experts advise us to avoid eating raw eggs and avoid licking the bowl when we make cake or cookie batter!)
Eggs from the grocery store are washed before they are put into their cartons. If your family has backyard poultry, be sure to wash the eggs to remove germs from their shells. Other healthy steps include keeping a clean coop, collecting eggs often and throwing away cracked eggs you collect.
In general, birds carry a lot of diseases besides bird flu. The best way to avoid getting sick is to make sure that children wash their hands with soap and water after being around any bird or bird droppings. Supervise children around birds and remind them not to rub their eyes or touch their nose or mouth while handling birds or bird feces. Tell your child not to touch, handle or move a sick or dead bird. They should let an adult know, so that it can be reported.
About Dr. Frenck:
Robert W. Frenck Jr, MD, FAAP, is board-certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases and a member of the AAP Section on Infectious Diseases. He practices at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati.