Migrating Birds and Avian Flu Risk to Humans

Spring is coming and we will soon become a temporary home to umpteen species of wild bird migrants, flying in from across the world, and yes, some of them may be carrying avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu. Over the coming months, we may also see more outbreaks of the disease in domestic poultry.

So, should we be worried about it?

The media would have us all cowering in our houses afraid that one stray infected bird will unleash a flu pandemic on us that will kill hundreds, probably preferably millions, as that makes for a better headline.

The truth is, avian influenza, including the recently troublesome strain H5N1, is a disease that primarily affects birds. Those relatively few humans that have unfortunately caught the disease have been in long term close contact with infected birds, by which I mean living side by side with them, and to my knowledge there has not yet been a case where the virus was passed between humans.

What we need to remember is that bird flu refers to a disease of birds. Pandemic flu, with which phrase the media constantly seeks to terrify us, refers to a human flu virus easily spread between humans with a high death rate in humans that is spreading far and wide and killing large number of people, i.e. thousands if not millions.

Yes, there is a chance that this H5N1 virus may mutate into a different virus that is deadly to humans and spreads amongst us like wildfire, but this is not going to happen overnight, and we could say the same thing about a whole host of flu viruses carried by either animals or humans. Come to that, what’s to stop one of our common cold viruses mutating into something equally devastating? No one can say it will never happen with H5N1, all I’m suggesting is there is no point panicking about something that hasn’t happened yet, may not happen for 20 years, if at all. Particularly as a human flu pandemic could equally come from a totally different direction anyway. Governments were preparing for flu pandemics long before H5N1 came on the scene – though how effective those preparations may be is open to debate.

Having said that, we all want to keep avian influenza out. If this disease takes hold, a lot of birds are going to become very ill and die. This is obviously bad for their welfare, but could also be devastating for the poultry industry, or for cage bird breeders who have spend decades building up their aviaries, or for pigeon racers that have spend just as long rearing and training their birds, or for endangered wild bird species that might just get toppled over the edge.

So yes, we should be concerned – but not terrified – and yes, we should all be taking some sensible precautions.

If you have birds of your own, good biosecurity is essential to keep a whole host of diseases, including bird flu, at bay. Important tactics include buying in healthy birds from proven sources, providing clean food and water, maintaining good standards of hygiene, separating and isolating new or ill birds, sensible disposal of faeces and preventing wild birds and vermin getting access to food or water supplies.

If your only contact with birds are those that you invite into your garden with bird food, or the geese and ducks at the local park, the usual precautions of avoiding dead carcasses of any kind, cleaning any faecal matter from clothes, footwear or skin, and last but not least washing your hands, have kept you safe so far from a multitude of diseases that birds, other animals, even your pet dog can carry, and there is no reason that it cannot do the same for bird flu.