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Q&A: How Humans Can Avoid Catching Bird Flu

Ukrainian scientist conducting tests for bird flu, 13 January (ITAR-TASS) How do people contract bird flu? And what precautions can people take, particularly those who live in agricultural areas? RFE/RL asked Dr. Andrew T. Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah and chairman of the national public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

RFE/RL: How do people get bird flu?

Pavia: Virtually all cases of transmission so far have come from very close contact with birds, usually ill poultry. Examples of cases where people have gotten sick have been people who've been preparing birds that were being culled for the kitchen. There are some really unusual cases, such as where a person leading a cock fight sucked blood and mucus out of the beak of one of his ill birds. But, having said that, we don't know exactly what kinds of contacts with birds are safe and what aren't. The birds that are involved in human transmission are almost exclusively domestic chickens and ducks so far.

RFE/RL: What about wild ducks or other birds? They are not a problem so far?

Pavia: To my knowledge, there have not been human cases associated with contact with wild ducks. It would certainly be possible for a hunter to come into contact with an infected duck and theoretically become infected. But I think it's just the sheer volume of domestic poultry that leads to the higher risk.

RFE/RL: Obviously, as you said, sucking on a sick bird's beak is not good policy. Is just handling sick poultry in any way a bad idea?

Pavia: If there are birds that are sick or if they are being culled for the purposes of reducing the risk, that's when people really need to take precautions. The workers who do the culling are typically wearing gloves, masks, washing their hands before and after contact. And that seems to be providing adequate protection. They are usually wearing gowns or overalls as well.

RFE/RL: What if you live near a farm with ill poultry, how do you protect yourself?

Pavia: Obviously, we don't know all of the answers yet, but it doesn't appear that casual contact such as having a farm across the street or being close to a farm is enough contact. It appears, so far, that this virus is hard to catch. You have to directly get virus put into your mouth, nose, or eyes. And casual contact with birds or with ill people does not appear to lead to illness.

RFE/RL: Can a person get sick from eating the meat from an infected bird?

Pavia: That's been a focus of a lot of concern. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that eating a fully cooked bird has led to illness, but I think that is something people are still looking at fairly carefully.

RFE/RL: What about eating uncooked eggs from an infecting chicken?

Pavia: Not cooking an egg could result in salmonella, campylobacter -- a whole variety of unpleasant things are more likely than bird flu.

RFE/RL: How is the soil around an infected poultry farm affected?

Pavia: The good news is that, unlike a bacteria like salmonella, which persists in the environment for a long time when it is in bird manure, influenza is fairly fragile. So, it is not thought that it is going to contaminate the ground for days or weeks after the birds pass by.

RFE/RL: So rivers or watersheds near an infected farm are safe?

Pavia: There is the theoretical transmission that over the short term a virus could be flushed into a water system or down river, but it's not going to persist a long time. So we don't face the problem that the soil or the rivers are going be contaminated long-term after the infections have cleared up in the birds. The birds are the reservoir. As long as they are infected, then that's where fresh infections are coming from. And because a virus has to be fairly fresh to survive, you need to have a living host like an infected bird. Theoretically, in the future that could be an infected person. And, that's what we worry about.

Affected Areas

Affected Areas

Click on the map for a closer view of the areas within RFE/RL's broadcast region where cases of diseased fowl have been confirmed. Last updated on February 20.

BIRD FLU, or avian influenza, continues to menace scattered areas from East Asia, where the disease first appeared, to Southeastern and Eastern Europe and beyond. Authorities around the world are bracing themselves -- and, more importantly, planning and taking measures to fight the disease wherever it appears.

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