Amidst the wide-ranging coverage of avian influenza — a highly virulent virus which kills up to 50 percent of the people who catch it — there is still a lot of confusion. In the first of an ongoing feature, MSNBC.com addresses readers' questions about the deadly disease U.S. and world health officials fear could spark a worldwide pandemic.
Q: How did bird flu start? Where did it start?
Dulcinea, Phoenix, Az.
A: Technically speaking, bird flu has been around for a very long time in aquatic bird species, says Dr. Richard Webby, Ph.D., assistant member, Infectious Diseases, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The precursor virus of the current H5N1 outbreak was first seen in geese in China in 1996. The virus has continued to circulate in the region and has changed considerably since this time both in terms of its genetic composition and, as importantly, its geographic range.
Q: Can you contract the virus H5N1 from eating eggs or chicken parts if the bird was already infected with the virus?
Joe, N.Y., N.Y.
A: Avian influenza is not transmitted through cooked food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To date, no evidence indicates that anyone has become infected following the consumption of properly cooked poultry or poultry products, even when these foods were contaminated with the H5N1 virus.
In areas experiencing outbreaks, raw eggs should not be used in foods that will not be further cooked. In areas free of the disease, poultry can be prepared and consumed as usual with no fear of acquiring the H5N1 virus. Normal temperatures used for cooking will kill the virus. Consumers need to be sure that all parts of the poultry are fully cooked (no “pink” parts) and that eggs, too, are properly cooked (no “runny” yolks).
Q: My husband and I [disagree whether] I should continue to feed the local wild birds in my backyard. I wish to continue to feed them but, my husband is concerned that I am exposing us and our dogs. To feed or not to feed, that is the question!
Danielle Kelly, Phoenixville, Penn.
A: Walter Boyce and Carol Cardona, co-directors of the Wildlife Health Center in the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine respond: The type of avian influenza causing problems in Asia (H5N1) is not present in North America. The risk that wild birds found at bird feeders in the United States are carrying this Asian strain is very small.
There has never been a documented case of a person becoming infected by contact with a wild bird. Most or all of the human cases in Asia occurred because of very close contact with infected poultry.
Q: I live in New Jersey and I am traveling to China with a tour group in April of 2006. Are there any vaccines I should get before I go over there concerning the bird flu? We are not traveling to remote areas or farms.
Celine Penti, Englewood, N.J.
A: There isn’t a vaccine for bird flu right now, explains Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. But if disease breaks out before the trip, you can check travel notices at the CDC to make sure the area is safe. Cases of avian flu in China appear to be related to people who are in close contact with poultry, so you should avoid handling birds in open-air markets. "Make sure everything you eat is well-cooked," he says.
Q: I have heard that the best defense against bird flu is a robust and strong immune system. There are a number of products on the market that claim to boost the immune system significantly. Could these products at least reduce the chances of getting the disease?
David Summers, Montgomery, Texas
A: While healthy people typically don't have severe problems with the normal flu, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, did attack "young, vigorous people," says Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Medical experts don't exactly understand why the 1918 virus was so deadly for the young. But, in general, "to protect oneself against any seasonal disease means to eat well, be fit and exercise," he says. Most of the supplement or immune enhancements that you read about have little evidence to support their claims. "Their effect on people who are well and healthy are not well-proven," says Benjamin.
Q: We have a few chickens and guinea fowl in Maryland. What do we need to do if one or more of our birds gets sick? Who do we contact? Should we be concerned? Should we destroy the birds now, before possible infection?
Evan Behre, Dayton, Md.
A: Walter Boyce and Carol Cardona, co-directors of the Wildlife Health Center in the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine respond: The type of avian influenza (H5N1) found in Asia is not present in North America, so the risk of exposure in your chickens and guinea fowl is very small. You can reduce the already small chance of exposure even further by housing your birds in such a way so that wild birds don’t share food and water sources with your birds. Biosecurity is your best defense.
Q: I own rare vintage poultry in Wyoming. I'm wondering why no one here seems to know of a vaccine for poultry here and if there is one why aren't we being advised to vaccinate now? One thing overlooked in all this hullabaloo is the fact that a huge population of birds are killed either by the disease or by officials trying to avoid the spread. What will happen to these wonderful rare breeds and what is the impact on the environment with such a great loss?
Charly McOmber, Aften, Wyo.
A: Walter Boyce and Carol Cardona, co-directors of the Wildlife Health Center in the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine respond: Biosecurity, rather than vaccination, is your best option at this time. Bird vaccines do exist that could protect birds from dying, but their use is regulated by the government. One concern is that the misuse of vaccine might actually help spread the virus.