Staying safe from avian flu

Avian influenza is the disease caused by infection with Avian(bird) Influenza (flu) Type A viruses
Last Updated 25 January 2021, 20:26 IST

As we gather new hope with the coming of the vaccine, another health crisis rings an alarm. Recently, there have been reports of another bird flu or Avian flu scare 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 from MP and Rajasthan. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Coporation (BMC) of Maharashtra has issued guidelines on safe disposal of carcasses. As per 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 15years wherein between 4000 to 5000 poultry birds were culled in Maharashtra’s Latur district.

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. With all this news floating, the biggest scare that looms is how much should we worry about the Avian flu epidemic?

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.

According to the 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 to 2019, the WHO confirmed a total of 861 human cases of H5N1 worldwide, of which 455 deaths were recorded although not from India.

Symptoms include:



Sore throat

Muscle ache


Shortness of breath

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.

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 the disease should enter the food chain, the authorities said.

As per 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.


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.

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.

(The writer is an infectious disease specialist at a hospital in Mumbai)

(Published 25 January 2021, 18:08 IST)

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