Avian flu makes the news whenever outbreaks occur in the United States, like a recent
ones in Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Washington. People who keep backyard chickens should be aware of the risks, as it is a disease that can devastate a flock and potentially spread to people. Fortunately, taking simple precautions reduces the odds that either chickens or humans will contract it or many other infectious diseases.
According to the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control avian flu is caused by one of several viruses. Most don’t infect humans but some strains can jump from birds to people and be fatal. In most human cases a person contracted it by handling a diseased or dead bird and came in contact with bird saliva, nasal secretions or feces.
There is no evidence that the disease can be is a threat when eating well cooked eggs or meat. Initial human symptoms can include fever, coughing, muscle ache and eye infections. The disease can lead to other medical complications.
Although avian flu is fairly common in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Europe it’s rare in North America. According to the World Health Organization one of the most effective ways of limiting the spread of an outbreak is to control the movement of chickens. Usually a government will prohibit importing chicken or chicken products from an infected country and state or local governments usually ban any movement of chickens in or out of infected areas.
Large chicken farms and hatcheries practice strict biosecurity procedures to reduce the odds that their flock will become infected. People with a few birds in a backyard coop often are too casual about preventing disease.
Avian flu is unlikely to strike isolated backyard flocks. Disease transmission in humans and chickens is similar. People who have minimal contact with others are unlikely to catch a contagious disease. Cram them together in an airplane, classroom or theater and just one sick person can spread the disease to others. Chickens are normally very healthy and the family that buys a few chicks from a disease-free hatchery and raises them isolated from other chickens reduces the contagion threat. Unfortunately, many backyard flock owners visit other people’s coops. Sometimes they adopt a friend’s surplus birds. Both actions could bring a disease into a healthy flock.
To reduce the odds of infection by many diseases and the chance that a person could catch avian flu follow these basic safety precautions:
- Keep the flock isolated. Don’t bring in outside birds that may be exposed to disease.
- Invite anyone who keeps chickens to wash and change clothes before visiting your birds. Better yet, share pictures instead of providing direct contact with birds. Don’t adopt stray or orphan chickens. Be cautious and use good biosecurity measures when attending “coop tours” and poultry shows, which can spread diseases quickly.
- Keep the coop clean and dry. Moisture breeds disease.
- Keep the chickens healthy by always providing a balanced diet, clean water and fresh air.
- Isolate ill birds from the rest of the flock.
- Wear rubber gloves when butchering and dressing chickens, and thoroughly clean knives and other tools used in the process. Dipping tools and soiled gloves in a bleach solution kills pathogens.
- Limit the flock’s access to migratory wild birds, especially waterfowl, which can move germs from place to place.
- Avoid direct contact with dead or diseased birds. Wash thoroughly and change into clean clothes after any contact.
- If a family member develops flu symptoms tell the physician that chicken contact was likely.
Chickens are normally wonderfully healthy and millions of people worldwide live in close proximity with them without ever suffering a health problem. The chance that someone with a backyard flock will catch avian flu from is remote but possible. Understanding the disease and practicing simple preventative measures reduces the odds even more.