Avian Influenza in People FAQ

November 6, 2006

Q: Can people become ill with highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza?

A: Yes; however, transmission of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) to humans is rare. Currently, the risk of contracting avian influenza (AI) for anyone who does not have close contact with infected birds is very low. Since H5N1 HPAI hasn't yet been identified in the United States, the risk of contracting AI in this country is almost nonexistent.

Internationally, to date, there is one reported incident of a human contracting AI from very close contact with (defeathering) a dead wild swan; all other incidents of human infection have resulted from exposure to infected domestic poultry, including domestic waterfowl.

Q: How do humans become infected?

A: The virus is found in the droppings (feces), nasal secretions, tissues (including blood), and saliva of infected birds. Inhalation and contamination of mucous membranes, such as the mouth, eyelids, or nasal passages (via contaminated hands), and consumption of infected meat that is improperly cooked are the most common routes of infection for humans. To date, transmission of the virus to humans has occurred almost exclusively from exposure to infected poultry, their droppings, or their products.

Currently, there are only a few cases where human-to-human transmission is thought to have occurred. In those cases, the virus was only transmitted to a small number of people who were from the same family. This transmission may have been the result of close contact with infected birds or sick family members. It is also possible the members of those families share a genetic tendency for infection with the virus because disease was found only among relatives of direct blood relation (such as a mother, her siblings, and her children, but not the children's father or his blood relatives).

Q: Can I catch avian influenza by eating chicken, turkey, duck or even eggs?

A: According to the USDA, proper handling and cooking of meat and eggs provides protection against contracting avian influenza and other viruses, as well as bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli. These organisms are readily killed by adequate cooking. The USDA strongly recommends consumers follow safe food handling and preparation techniques every day. Visit the FDA Web site for food safety instructions.

Q: Can I get highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus infection from my pet bird?

A: It is very unlikely. To date, there is one reported incident of a human contracting AI from very close contact with (defeathering) a dead wild swan; all other incidents of human infection have resulted from exposure to infected domestic poultry, including domestic waterfowl. Whether other species of birds can transmit H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) to humans is not known.

Should H5N1 HPAI be introduced into the United States, only those pet birds with exposure to infected wild birds or infected poultry could ever become infected with H5N1 HPAI.

Q: Can I/Should I feed ducks/geese at the local park?

A: The strain of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that has circulated in Asia, Africa, and Europe has not yet been identified in the United States, so the risk that ducks or geese in your local park are infected is currently very low. Whether or not feeding wildlife is appropriate depends on the situation/environment, species, and availability of suitable food; however, to date, casual contact has not been demonstrated to be an important means of transmission of the H5N1 HPAI virus from birds to people.

Q: How do I safely dispose of dead birds?

A: In the case of wild birds, the nearest office of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services should be notified so that appropriate personnel can determine whether the carcasses qualify for avian influenza (AI) testing (or another potentially infectious disease of concern). Carcasses should not be disturbed until that decision is made. View USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services office in your state.

If a pet bird has died, and if H5N1 HPAI infection is suspected, your veterinarian should alert the appropriate animal health officials, including the office of the State Veterinarian or the USDA Area Veterinarian-in-Charge for further instructions on whether/how to test and dispose of the carcass.

If it is determined that it is appropriate to dispose of a dead bird, place the bird in a plastic bag and seal it. Try to avoid direct contact with the bird; wear disposable gloves, if available. If gloves are not available, turn the plastic bag inside out, use it as a cover for your hand to grasp the bird, and then pull the bag back over your hand to enclose the bird. You can then dispose of the bird by the means recommended by the USDA, the State Veterinarian, or the State Public Health Veterinarian. CDC has developed handling guidelines for dead birds.

Q: Is it risky to travel to areas presently affected by avian influenza?

A: CDC does not advise against travel to affected countries at this time. However, CDC recommends that travelers to countries with known outbreaks of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) 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. When traveling to any foreign country, especially areas affected by H5N1 HPAI, it is always wise to check with international travel authorities or the CDC for updated information.