Published on 05/04/06

Case of bird flu shouldn't heighten fears

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Reports this week that a mild form of avian influenza was found at a live bird market in New Jersey shouldn't raise concerns here, say university and industry experts.

"We've never had a case of either low-path or high-path AI in Georgia," said Mike Lacy, poultry science department head with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The New Jersey case was not the deadly H5N1 strain the world has been watching carefully for months, according to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

"The strain was found in a live bird market in Camden County (N.J.). None of the birds in the market died from this virus, which is an indicator that the virus was low-pathogenic and not harmful to humans," said New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Charles Kuperus in a statement April 28.


Lacy said the different AI strains or subtypes are classified by hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N) proteins on the surface of the virus. In wild birds and poultry, 16 H and 9 N subtypes have been identified. They combine for many variations besides the deadly H5N1 strain.

"Obviously, by the fact that they're called 'avian' influenza, all are bird diseases," he said. "They're not considered human diseases. The possibility of AI spreading from birds to humans is extremely remote."

Much of the public buzz has been about an influenza pandemic. The two are not the same.

"There have been only 203 cases of human AI infection identified worldwide in the last three years," Lacy said. "These have been the result of humans coming into direct contact with birds infected with the AI virus."

Hard to catch

For a human to be infected with AI, the person must usually have direct fecal or body-fluid contact with the bird and must inhale the virus deeply into the lungs.

"The chances of someone in a developed country coming into contact with AI-infected birds are almost nonexistent," Lacy said. "AI is a disease affecting birds and has not acquired the ability to spread easily to or from humans at present."

The H5N1 virus has spread from Asia to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Its spread has led several countries to ban poultry imports from nations where the disease has spread. Scientists worry that if the virus acquires the ability to pass easily from person to person, it could cause a pandemic.

The Georgia poultry industry and Georgia Department of Agriculture are well prepared to deal with avian influenza.


"The poultry industry in Georgia cooperates with the Georgia Poultry Laboratory Network to test each poultry flock on the farm before it leaves to be processed," said Mike Giles, vice- president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.

If AI were to be detected, the flock would be humanely destroyed and the birds disposed of in an approved way. Then the affected farm would be quarantined and the premises cleaned, disinfected and left idle for a prescribed time to be sure the virus is killed.

"The poultry industry is taking every precaution to produce a safe and wholesome product," Giles said.

Giles said the strain of bird flu detected in New Jersey poses "no risk at all to humans." Rather than causing people to fear, he said, detecting the bird flu virus in New Jersey should reassure Americans. "It shows that our system for testing birds is working," he said.

The way U.S. poultry is produced should be a further comfort, Giles said. Unlike traditional production in countries where the virus has been causing problems, U.S. growers raise chickens in confined buildings.

He noted that the people who have contracted the H5N1 virus all got it from direct contact with infected live birds. And in the U.S., "very few people today ever have close contact with live chickens," he said.

(Faith Peppers is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. CAES news editor Dan Rahn contributed to this article.)

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.