Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, is a viral infection that occurs primarily and naturally in wild aquatic birds. There are multiple strains of bird flu which can cause varying degrees of illness in birds. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) reveals that four strains of bird flu - H5N1 (since 1997), H7N9 (since 2013), H5N6 (since 2014) and H5N8 (since 2016) - have raised concerns in recent years. Outbreaks of bird flu have occurred in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East since 1997. There have also been many outbreaks of bird flu in India since 2005-06. 

Of these common strains of bird flu, H5N8 has not infected any humans to date, globally. Human cases of H5N1, H7N9 and H5N6 are rare as these strains cannot infect humans easily, and human to human transmission is extremely rare. Still, several people from around the world have been infected with this flu during outbreaks and this has led to a number of deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that in humans, the H5N1 bird flu has a case-fatality of around 60%. 

(Read more: World’s deadliest viruses)

  1. Actions authorities take to prevent bird flu in humans
  2. Eating chicken and eggs during an outbreak

This approximation may seem alarming, which is why the moment a bird flu outbreak is announced, most governments undertake bird culling initiatives. This means identifying groups of infected (or potentially infected) domesticated birds, including poultry like chicken, duck, turkey, geese, etc (including their eggs) and culling them in large numbers until every infected bird is dead and therefore no longer capable of transmitting the infection to humans and other birds alike. 

This method of culling and banning the sale of chicken, eggs and all types of poultry is quite effective. This is well-proved by the Indian case, where - despite 15 or more outbreaks since 2005 - culling measures and sales bans have ensured that no human cases of bird flu have been reported yet. Moreover, other methods that can help humans prevent bird flu are also promoted and widely publicized during (and beyond) outbreaks. They include:

  • Avoiding contact with dead or infected birds
  • Maintaining safe hygiene practices while handling poultry
  • Cooking all poultry products properly 
  • Avoiding raw or undercooked poultry products
  • Handwashing before and after handling poultry

(Read more: The right way to wash your hands)

The WHO and many other healthcare organizations say that as long as poultry products and eggs are cooked properly and with safe hygiene practices, you can continue to consume them. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) says that all strains of bird flu are destroyed at a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) if cooked for the duration of 30 minutes. Further, washing your hands and other exposed body parts for a minute with soap and water after handling poultry and eggs is also recommended.

(Read more: Steps India should take now to prevent future epidemic outbreaks)

As long as you follow these good hygiene and cooking practices, consuming poultry and poultry products is safe, whether there is a bird flu outbreak or not. You can also adopt the following measures to ensure the safety of poultry products during this time:

  • Buy your poultry products like chicken and eggs from a known, reliable and safe source. 
  • The butchers or service providers must also follow all hygiene practices like handwashing before and after handling the birds or the meat. 
  • Once the poultry products are brought home, cook them immediately and ensure that cooked meat is refrigerated or stored separately from other edibles to avoid cross-contamination. Keeping raw poultry products refrigerated during a bird flu outbreak may not be ideal, given the risk of cross-contamination with other foods.
  • Cook all poultry products at medium to high temperatures for at least 30 minutes. Ensure that they are not undercooked in any way.
  • Minimise exposure to open-air markets or other areas where birds or poultry livestock are reared, stored or slaughtered. 
  • Wear a mask whenever coming into contact with live birds or dead poultry. Wash your hands and other exposed areas after exposure. 

While human cases of bird flu have not been reported in India until now, if you want to be extra cautious for your own or your family’s sake and avoid eating chicken, duck, geese, turkey or any of their eggs then that’s also fine. You could eat plant-based sources of proteins like soy, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds, dairy products like paneer, milk and yoghurt and other animal sources of protein like mutton or lamb during an outbreak. It’s important to note that the prices of these other sources of proteins may fluctuate during a bird flu outbreak. Using chicken or poultry droppings as manure is also not recommended by AIIMS. If, despite taking all precautions, any symptoms of bird flu show up then contact your doctor and local health authorities immediately.

(Read more: First aid for viral fever)

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References

  1. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). [Internet]. New Delhi. India. Avian influenza : Frequently Asked Questions
  2. World Health Organization [Internet]. Geneva (SUI): World Health Organization; No bird flu risk for consumers from properly cooked poultry and eggs
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. Frequently Asked Questions and answers on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza
  4. National Health Service [Internet]. Hertfordshire. UK; Bird flu
  5. Mittal, Niti and Medhi, Bikash. The Bird Flu: A New Emerging Pandemic Threat And Its Pharmacological Intervention. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2007 Jul; 1(2): 277–283. PMID: 21475439
  6. Chen, Bin. et al. Does Eating Chicken Feet With Pickled Peppers Cause Avian Influenza?. JMIR Public Health Surveill. 2018 Jan-Mar; 4(1): e32. PMID: 29599109
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