Avian Flu the topic of conversation worldwide.
It is of course of great concern to the many owners of exotic birds in the UK. Whether you own one pet bird or many breeding birds we are all sitting here wondering what is likely to happen and what it all means.
I have been reading various articles and listening to the many reports on the news especially the latest one regarding the bird at Heathrow that was confirmed as having the avian flu virus. It was described as an H5 virus but not the strain that they have isolated that can cause the problem with humans the H5N1 strain.
Avian flu is not a new thing and it has been studied for years not least because of its effects on the domestic fowl industry i.e. the turkey and chicken trade.
I have taken some data from a book written by Branson W. Ritchie, DVM, PHD from his book ‘Avian Viruses Function and Control.’ Branson Ritchie has done extensive research into virus’s and companion birds and is world renown for his research into PDD and PBFD.
And hopefully it will give you some background as I understand it, to the virus commonly know as Avian Flu.
The virus which contains the influenza virus is from the family Orthomyxoviridae which can be divided into three types A, B and C but the one that concerns the veterinary world is the influenza A virus. The reason it is reported as an H5N1 virus is that they are using a means of identification for this virus which is based on the variances in the hemagglutinin(H) and neuraminidase(N) proteins found on the surface of the virus.
At the time of publishing this book in 1995 there had been 14 different H proteins and 9 different N proteins detected. And individual subtypes or variations of the influenza A found in birds can be made up of any combination of one of the H and one of the N proteins for example H2N1, H12N9, or the one currently in the news H5N1.
Most species of birds of all ages are considered susceptible to the influenza A viruses and the way in which it affects the birds can differ from bird to bird. It may include mild to severe respiratory signs, depression, anorexia, neurological signs and diarrhoea.
Depending upon the strain of avian influenza the bird has, many affected birds will and do recover from the virus within two to three weeks and they will develop anti bodies to this particular subspecies of the virus, helping not only to get rid of the virus but also preventing it from getting that particular strain again but of course this does not protect it from any of the other subspecies or variations of the virus. However recovery is not always the case and there are many birds that will die as a result of becoming infected. The incubation period can be from several hours to several days depending on the virulence of the subtype and the susceptibility of the host. The influenza A viruses are principally transmitted through direct contact with faeces and aerosols from infected birds.
Avian flu or Influenza A virus has always had a worldwide distribution and has been found in many different species of birds over the years.
In order to protect domestic poultry the companion and aviary birds that are being imported into many but not all countries are screened for influenza A virus during their quarantine period. Which, of course, is how the virus was found in the bird in quarantine at Heathrow airport. Again this is not a new thing, it has been implemented in the UK for years the only difference at the moment is, that if the influenza virus is isolated in any birds it is making the headlines because of the fear of the possible risk to humans of the strain H5N1 which has been found to jump species and infect humans.
Migratory birds, and birds that have NOT for whatever reason gone through official quarantine channels, are, to me, the main cause for concern for our UK birds. The latter in my opinion being the main one.
We know that bodies of water that have had migratory birds visiting could also be considered an important source for virus exposure and it goes without saying that to drink or swim in these lakes and ponds etc. at this current time should be avoided.
Humans should also be considered to be mechanical vectors or carriers for transmission of this or indeed any avian virus which can be spread by contaminated faeces. So if your shoes or clothes have possibly been in contact with any infected faeces make sure you disinfect them before coming in contact with your own domestic flock. This should go for visitors to your premises as well.
The infectivity of these viruses can be destroyed in minutes by heating them to 56 deg centigrade,exposure to sunlight and most detergents and disinfectants will also destroy them.
Unfortunately the influenza virus seems to be more stable at lower temperatures so this time of year is not the best for it being naturally destroyed in the atmosphere.
If you have pet birds or aviary birds reducing their exposure to possibly infected, free ranging birds will help. Of course this can be done in a companion bird environment far more easily than an aviary environment. Practice good husbandry by regularly cleaning and disinfecting the birds cage and play areas and toys and in an aviary situation clean and disinfect weekly (better to loose eggs by disturbing your birds than to risk loosing them from a virus) also cover the aviaries with something that will prevent wild birds from either entering the aviaries or if their droppings fall on the aviary preventing it from going inside.
Rodent control is also important because this too can carry disease and I do not know if it can also carry the influenza virus but is it really worth the risk.
If you do visit other countries or indeed places where there are other birds especially if these birds are in over crowded conditions make sure you change your clothes and footwear and if possible shower or at least wash your hands before coming into contact with your own birds. These are all simple precautions that will help to reduce your flock to any unnecessary risks. Remember our birds are in our care and it is up to each one of us to protect them to the best of our ability. And if you do have a cold or flu please do try not to cough, sneeze or come into very close contact with your bird until you are well.
As I have said Avian flu is not a new thing and has not been a major cause for concern in companion birds. The reason that it has come to the fore now is because the particular strain of the virus which has been identified as H5N1 has been found to have the capability of being passed from birds to humans and the concern is that it may be able to adapt further and pass from human to human although as yet I do not believe there is any evidence of this.
I hope that this helps and that no one is now under the impression that they need to get rid of their birds to keep themselves healthy.
Just a further word if you do see any ill or dead wild birds distressing as it may be my advice would be to leave them alone and telephone the RSPCA or RSPB.
I have had many telephone calls recently from people who are worried about what to do with their birds with reference to the possible Avian Flu pandemic which is the main topic of conversation worldwide.
Some have asked should they get rid of their birds or take them to the vets and have them put to sleep. (It does worry me that with all the adverse publicity being generated that this scenario will infact be played out with many of our exotic birds. They will end up being killed or just released because of the fear which is being generated). If anyone does know anyone who has a pet bird of any kind or keeps aviary birds it may be prudent to find out what they know about Avian Flu and try to alleviate any possible fears that they may have now before we have a situation where these poor birds end up suffering as a result of scare mongering and lack of knowledge.
Article from Alan Jones (Avian Vet)
In the light of recent extensive publicity on Avian Influenza, the Parrot Society UK has the following comments:
The situation is changing from day to day and requires regular monitoring in the light of latest developments. Since changes are so rapid, printed reports are quickly outdated. Please use the PSUK website for the latest details.
Such monitoring should NOT rely on the alarmist articles in the tabloid press, which suggest we shall all be dying in the next few weeks of this disease. Rather rely on balanced scientific evidence given by PSUK and DEFRA (www.defra.gov.uk). Sensational news sells newspapers!
I repeat comments made earlier:
a) The avian influenza virus exists in wild populations of waterfowl, and is brought into the UK every winter by migrating birds. We have never had epidemics of avian influenza occurring in parrots before.
b) The most susceptible species are waterfowl and poultry; whilst it has been reported in pigeons, parrots, raptors and other species, such events are so unusual as to be reported in scientific journals. The recent death of just one parrot out of a large group in quarantine supports this, and that bird was infected because of close contact with infected finches from Asia.
c) Virulent strains of the virus infecting waterfowl will kill these birds before they reach these shores, unless the virus spreads further west across Europe.
d) Importation of the virulent virus into this country is most likely to occur via poultry products or imported infected birds. Provided we continue to ban poultry products from known infected areas, then the former should not be a problem. Our quarantine methods for the importation of birds will prevent the release of the virus into the country, as has been proved by the above mentioned reported case of the parrot from South America. Birds smuggled in illegally pose a different problem that requires addressing.
Perhaps a temporary ban on parrot imports should be called? This will give time for a longer term discussion on the benefits or otherwise of this trade, while aiding the immediate control of spread of the virus. The Parrot Society supports the idea of such a ban.
Just over 60 people have died in the last two years of the H5N1 strain of avian ‘flu virus in S E Asia. Over 12,000 people die every winter in the UK alone of ordinary human influenza. This gives some kind of perspective to the worldwide problem. Look at the scaremongering about SARS a few years ago, with people travelling around airports wearing face masks – did that ever develop into the predicted worldwide mortalities?
Currently reported human cases have occurred almost exclusively in humans exposed to concentrated levels of avian influenza virus, owing to the living conditions of poultry in close proximity to humans in S E Asia.
The scare is that the H5N1 strain of avian ‘flu will mutate into a form that will spread from human to human, thus making an epidemic more likely. This is a big ‘if’, requiring simultaneous infection of a human with both avian and human strains of the virus for such mutation to take place. Whilst health authorities have to be prepared for such an eventuality, the likelihood is still very low. Predicted numbers (guestimates?) of 50,000 people dying in the UK are pure alarmist guesswork, and in any case are not massively above the normal influenza mortality rate.
Comparisons are made with the 1918 pandemic, in which millions died worldwide. Times have changed since then: nursing and isolation facilities have improved no end; antibiotics are available to treat secondary infection; anti-viral drugs are available to treat the worst affected; vaccines can be produced quickly once a pathogenic strain is identified; early warning and detection are both much improved in the last 100 years.
Vaccines are available for poultry, BUT ONLY in doses suitable for chicks of a few days old, and they are given in drinking water to flocks of several hundreds. This vaccine is NOT effective in other species nor in adult backyard poultry.
Currently available influenza vaccines given to vulnerable human patients every winter may offer some cross-protection to avian influenza, but specific vaccines produced for the particular strain would be more appropriate. Government contingency plans suggest that sufficient will be made available in the event to vaccinate every person in the UK, but initially those in the frontline of risk – avian rescue centres, wildfowl collections, poultry workers, avian veterinarians – will be offered protection.
Indoor pet parrots should be quite safe. You DO NOT need to have your much-loved pet budgerigar or parrot put to sleep in case it gives you avian influenza!! Outdoor aviary birds are theoretically at more risk, especially if sited close to ponds and lakes with waterfowl, or poultry farms. Such aviaries should be covered with Perspex sheeting to prevent contamination with wild bird droppings. Food and water bowls should be regularly cleaned and disinfected; food stores should be sealed from possible contamination by rodents or wild birds. Food, water, and sleeping areas should be sited where wild birds cannot gain access. Visitors to the aviary should be monitored, and banned if coming from a suspect area. In other words – the normal bio-security methods that we should all be taking on a regular basis anyway, to control diseases such as Newcastle Disease, Salmonellosis, Psittacosis, PBFD, PDD, etc…!
Be vigilant! Look out for sick or dying wild birds in the area. Check your birds for signs of bad breathing or sore eyes, or loss of vitality. Even if present, these do not necessarily mean avian ‘flu, many other infections will produce such signs, but they should be investigated.
Certainly for the moment further gatherings of birds at local clubs or other shows is not a good idea. Apart from the slight potential risk of spreading infection, it will fuel the anti-bird publicity that is rife and benefiting from the current situation. Witness the publicity in the newspapers this weekend, and especially in the Daily Mail of Saturday 22 November. This prominent article has obviously been prompted by the anti-birdkeeping lobby, and they have jumped on the bandwagon of the current avian ‘flu hysteria to attack the P S show at Stafford. Representatives from DEFRA and the RSPCA were present, as well as several avian vets, and all were satisfied with the standards at the show. However, the fact remains that such publicity will go against the Society and others in the field, and if more shows take place in the near future (Newark, Kings Lynn) in the face of the present situation, there is no doubt that further publicity will do aviculture no good at all. The fact that the Daily Mail article simply regurgitates old arguments and examples from protectionists’ past campaigns, and that the photograph is of a cockatoo with PBFD are irrelevant – the damage is done. It is still a very large picture of a very sick bird, and to Joe Public it will stick in their minds and looks awful!
At the moment, the risk of Avian Influenza being introduced into the UK remains low. The risk of humans being infected is even lower. However, we need to remain vigilant and take sensible precautions as outlined above. Contingency plans have been put in place by Government, Human Health and Veterinary authorities, and DEFRA, and regular updates of the situation are posted on the DEFRA website. Such information should be noted in preference to the scaremongering of the popular media, and there is no cause for panic at this stage as far as parrot, parrakeet, and other cage and aviary bird keeping is concerned.
Alan K Jones 24/10/05