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Bird Flu (Avian Influenza): Facts for Families

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By: Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, FAAP

Birds in the United States can be affected by avian flu (also called H5N1 bird flu or avian influenza). But can it affect your family?

Here's what parents need to know about bird flu.

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.

Is bird flu spreading in the United States?

Sometimes, wild birds spread the virus and cause outbreaks on poultry farms. In January 2022, it was found in wild birds in our country for the first time since 2016. Several states have since reported bird flu in poultry flocks and wild birds. In the past few years, tens of millions of chickens were removed from farms where the virus was detected. This affected the egg supply and caused a big increase in the price of eggs.

Does bird flu only make birds sick?

Bird flu is common in wild birds—especially wild waterfowl 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.

Other animals can get bird flu, too. Wildlife and domestic livestock that are exposed to the viruses can become infected.

In March 2024, bird flu was identified in dairy cattle in several states. It is the first time that this virus has been found in cows. Several cats on a farm in Texas also died after drinking raw milk from infected cows. Public health experts are watching the outbreaks and infections very closely.

Can people get bird flu?

In very rare cases, bird flu can spread to humans. A concern about bird flu is that a strain could change and infect people and spread easily among them. That has not happened yet, but there have been four cases of bird flu in people reported in the United States since 2022.

As of May 30,2024, three people have been identified with "highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1)" virus bird flu. All three people worked with dairy cows that were presumably infected with bird flu. This is the first time that the virus has spread from cows to people in the United States. Two people were infected on separate dairy farms in Michigan and one person was infected on a dairy farm in Texas.

In 2022, a person was infected while working closely with birds. They had very mild symptoms and recovered.

Health experts continue to watch for any changes in how the virus spreads—including in people with exposure to dairy cows and poultry.

What are the symptoms of bird flu in people?

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 and 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 three 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.

Can bird flu spread through chicken or dairy products?

You cannot get bird flu from eating fully cooked domestic or wild poultry products like chicken, turkey or duck.

There is no evidence that the flu can be spread through pasteurized dairy products.

Is raw milk safe to drink?

"Raw," unpasteurized milk can harbor dangerous microorganisms, such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli and Listeria, that can pose serious health risks. Pasteurization is a process that kills harmful bacteria by heating milk to a specific temperature for a set period.

Health officials have long advised against drinking raw milk, which has not been pasteurized. However, raw milk may be extra risky now because of possible transmission of H5N1 virus.

Public health experts keep a close watch for bird flu outbreaks on farms to make sure our food supply is safe. People who work in the livestock industry also follow safety steps to protect themselves and others in case they have close contact with sick animals.

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 eggshell.

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!)

What about eggs from backyard chickens?

Eggs from the grocery store are washed before they are put into their cartons.

If your family has backyard poultry, be sure to clean eggs carefully with fine sandpaper, a brush, or a cloth to remove germs from their shells. Don't wash warm, fresh eggs because colder water can pull germs into the egg through tiny pores in the shell. Other healthy steps include keeping a clean coop, collecting eggs often and throwing away cracked eggs you collect.

Remember

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.

More information

About Dr. Frenck

Robert W. Frenck Jr, MD, FAAP, is board-certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases and chair 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.



Last Updated
5/30/2024
Source
American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Infectious Diseases (Copyright © 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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