As we gather new hope with the coming of the vaccine, alarm bells are ringing over another health crisis. In the past few days, there have been reports of another bird flu or avian influenza in parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh.
It all started in December when reports started flooding in of dead birds falling from the sky in Jhalawar, Bhopal and some other regions of MP and Rajasthan. A similar phenomenon was witnessed in Himachal Pradesh and Kerala too. On January 11, Maharashtra alone reported the death of 800 chickens in Murumba village due to bird flu.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Coporation (BMC) of Maharashtra has issued guidelines on safe disposal of carcasses. According to the guidelines, dead birds are to be disposed of by burying in a pit after layering them with limestone to avoid scavengers from digging them up. Maharashtra also initiated its first culling exercise in 15 years wherein between 4,000 and 5,000 poultry birds were culled in Maharashtra's Latur district. An "alert zone" has been declared in a 10km radius around the Ahmedpur area in Latur after 180 birds, including 128 hens, were found dead. The alert zone norms state that no vehicle will pass through the place and the transportation of poultry, birds, animals, feed, manure etc. will be prohibited.
The central government has issued an alert to the states saying that samples need to be collected from areas where bird flu deaths are being reported. The authorities have also launched a drive to identify those with suspected flu symptoms in the area.
With all this news floating, the biggest scare that looms is how much should we worry about the avian flu epidemic? And how much can this flu epidemic impact humans? Here are the answers to your questions.
What is avian flu?
Avian influenza is the disease caused by infection with avian (bird) influenza (flu) Type A viruses. This is said to occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other birds and animals, as per the Centre for Disease Control. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), H5N8, H5N5 and H5N1, with H5N8 are the most commonly reported flu viruses among birds.
Does it affect humans?
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), avian flu viruses do not normally infect human beings. Such an infection is rare, only sporadic cases have been reported since 2015, according to Mayo Clinic. However, if it does infect a people, infection is generally mild, can require ICU care in few patients. It’s very rare to have human to human transmission of the same. Between 2003 and 2019, the WHO confirmed a total of 861 human cases of H5N1 worldwide, of which 455 deaths were recorded although not from India.
What are the common symptoms of bird flu among humans?
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Shortness of breath
How can someone contract the bird flu virus?
People can contract the bird flu virus by close contact with birds or bird droppings. Some people have caught the virus from cleaning or plucking infected birds. It is also possible that people can contract the virus while swimming or bathing in water contaminated with the droppings of infected birds.
Should we stop eating chicken and eggs?
Chicken and other poultry are safe to eat if cooked properly, according to a joint statement by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued to national food safety authorities. However, no birds from flocks with disease should enter the food chain, the authorities said.
According to the WHO, thorough cooking of poultry products at or above 70° Celsius is crucial, so that absolutely no meat remains raw and red, is a safe measure to kill the H5N1 virus in areas with outbreaks in poultry. This ensures that there is no active virus remaining if the live bird has been infected and has mistakenly entered the food chain. To date, there is no epidemiological evidence that people have become infected after eating contaminated poultry meat that has been properly cooked. All in all, in its paramount to maintain the good hygiene practices and stay alert on the symptoms.
WHO-recommended good hygienic practices to reduce exposure to the avian virus
- No birds from flocks with disease should enter the food chain
- Do not eat raw poultry parts, including raw blood, or raw eggs in or from areas with outbreaks in poultry
- Separate raw meat from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination. Do not use the same chopping board or the same knife. Do not handle both raw and cooked foods without washing your hands in between and do not place cooked meat back on the same plate or surface it was on prior to cooking. Do not use raw or soft-boiled eggs in food preparations that will not be heat treated or cooked.
- Keep clean and wash your hands. After handling frozen or thawed raw poultry or eggs, wash your hands thoroughly with soap. Wash and disinfect all surfaces and utensils that have been in contact with the raw meat
- Thorough cooking of poultry meat will inactivate the virus. Either ensure that the poultry meat reaches 70°C at the centre of the product (“piping” hot) or that the meat is not pink in any part. Egg yolks should not be runny or liquid.
(The author is an infectious disease specialist at Fortis Hospitals, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine)