[chickens]In a country where cell phones cause brain tumors, sugar substitutes lead to cancer and anime cartoons result in seizures, everyday life can seem saturated with health risks.
Some may have scientific backing, but others – like contracting sexually transmitted diseases from touching doorknobs – are not backed up by any feasible research. “I never buy into the so-called epidemics they show on the news,” zoology senior Jake Gunn said. “I would never leave the house if I were always scared of being sick. Life is all about risk, and I’d rather take my risk catching an illness instead of locking myself indoors.”
One health concern receiving vast media attention is avian influenza, commonly known as the bird flu. The virus has actually been in and out of the news for the last 10 years, since the current troublesome strain first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. Although it is unlikely to become a problem in Michigan, experts are still preparing for possible outbreaks. So, should MSU students be worried that their favorite winged creature could get them sick?
H5N1, Do You Copy?
The virus, which is found in several bird species, has a variety of types. Many birds carry different forms of avian influenza that are no threat to humans; most are not even a mortal threat to birds. Richard Fulton, an avian pathologist at MSU, said the virus that is lethal in birds and has most commonly affected humans is known as H5N1, or Avian Influenza A. “Humans are not susceptible to every type of avian influenza,” Fulton said. “People just think that there is one kind of bird flu, but there various kinds of avian influenzas, H5 being the type some humans have contracted.” Humans usually contract the virus after close contact with an infected bird or raw poultry.
Associate professor of animal sciences Daniel Grooms explained that the virus acts quickly in birds, and there is no current treatment for infected birds. “Farmers have reported that chickens would act oddly one day, not eating regularly,” Grooms said. “The next day, farmers would find them dead. As soon as the virus is detected, the farm is quarantined, and all the birds are euthanized. It is done humanely.\”
[flu]Effects of H5 are far worse on birds than on humans. Symptoms of affected people include cough, sore throat, fever, eye infections, muscle aches and other normal flu-like symptoms. Only in rare cases have humans died from this virus. Grooms said that the largest at-risk groups are those with weak immune systems, including children and the elderly.
Turn Up the Heat
Luckily for chicken and turkey lovers, poultry can be consumed even in areas experiencing an outbreak. The H5N1 virus is sensitive to heat, which means normal temperatures used for cooking will kill the virus. All parts of the poultry must be fully cooked, leaving no pink spots, and eggs should have no runny parts.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the virus can easily be killed,” Fulton said. “Some of the things that can kill this virus are sunlight, soap and water, household bleach, and cooking temperatures. Once poultry is fully cooked and not exposed to the virus thereafter, it’s perfectly edible.” Like moms always say, wash your hands, brush your teeth, and don\’t forget to cook chicken thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Outbreaks of the virus have been found in Asia and Europe – most recently in the United Kingdom – and the U.S. government is trying to prevent it from spreading to the Americas. As of early February, there have been about 270 confirmed cases of avian flu in humans, 165 of them resulting in death.
In order to be a pandemic, around 25 percent of a population covering a large geographic area would have to be infected with the flu. Grooms said that a bird flu pandemic is unlikely, unless the virus mutates to become more lethal. If someone was infected with a human flu virus and the avian flu virus at the same time, the viruses might exchange genes. This could result in a new strain of the virus that could be easily transferred among humans.
Research has shown that the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was an avian flu virus. It killed 50-100 million people in just 18 months, making it the most deadly flu pandemic in history.
The World Health Organization is currently categorizing H5N1 as a phase three pandemic – a virus new to humans that is causing infection, but one that does not spread easily from one person to another. At this time, the bird flu appears to be a minimal threat, and doctors have been able to keep it under control.
A Foul Migration
The U.S. exports more poultry than it imports, and there is a list of affected countries from which poultry imports in to the U.S. have been discontinued. Some of these countries are China, Thailand, and Indonesia.
“The only way that chicken or other poultry from those countries that have had outbreaks would get across our borders would be through illegal importation,” Fulton said. This may be a problem, as police already seized over 1,600 pounds of chicken and pork in a warehouse in Troy, Mich., in 2006. The meat and poultry were from areas in China known to be infected with the virus. No one has reported contracting avian influenza from these smuggled foods.
Besides imported poultry, migration has also been a concern. Birds that migrate from Asia to Alaska in the summer could potentially transport the virus, but Fulton said that this is an inadmissible problem. “In Alaska, scientists took samples from 16,000 birds, and none posed a serious threat,” Fulton said.
[store]Government agencies in Michigan have been working with local farmers and wildlife experts to keep the bird flu out of the state. The Michigan Department of Community Health is not at all concerned that a pandemic is near, but they keep a close surveillance over farms and livestock to make sure nothing serious develops. By keeping a constant watch for signs of H5N1, farmers and health officials hope to stop any viruses before chickens become infected and lose any chance of becoming a Happy Meal.
There are vaccines and antivirals for people if the bird flu does become a problem, so if you fear shots, be glad that the virus is currently tough to catch (sorry, but doctors still recommend getting regular flu shots). MDCH has a checklist to help people prepare their homes or businesses if a pandemic breaks out, but this is unlikely unless the disease crosses the border.
Avian influenza may still be a health risk overseas, but in the U.S. it looks like KFC lovers can relax for now; the Colonel’s crispy chicken sandwich will not be causing you to grow feathers anytime soon.
“People should not isolate themselves in fear of getting sick from the bird flu,” Grooms said. “They need to be educated and aware about the threat and learn how to protect themselves if needed.”
So has the fear of bird flu stopped MSU students from ordering poultry?
“If there was a bird flu outbreak in Michigan, I might give it some thought,” English senior Justin Schramm said, “but it hasn’t affected my life even a little bit yet.”
Next time you order chicken nuggets or extra turkey on that sub, be thankful that the U.S. has not fallen victim to the bird flu. But you might want to cut back on the anime.
For more information on avian influenza, visit The Michigan Department of Community Health website at www.michigan.gov/mdch.