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Get the facts about bird flu

April 26, 2024—Recently, dairy cows in Texas infected a person with bird flu—HPAI A(H5N1). It's the first time cow-to-human spread of H5N1 bird flu has been detected. There's no evidence of the virus spreading in humans, but the issue has made headlines, and you might be wondering how the bird flu might affect you.

Here are answers to some common questions, based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

What is the risk of bird flu for humans?

Most people aren't at risk. At the moment, the bird flu issue is mostly an animal health problem. Bird flu in humans can happen, but it's rare. Only two cases of H5N1 bird flu have been reported in the U.S., according to CDC.

There's no evidence of humans infecting other humans with bird flu. If you don't come into close contact with birds or other potentially infected animals, you likely don't have to worry.

Can animals other than birds get bird flu?

As the name suggests, the H5N1 bird flu virus mostly affects birds. Since 2022, it's affected wild birds and domestic poultry around the world.

But it can affect other animals, too, including mammals. Foxes, dogs, cats, seals and tigers have all been infected.

In March 2024, the H5N1 flu was detected in dairy cows in the United States. The flu is spreading from cows to other cows, and it’s been found in several states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CDC and other agencies have been monitoring the spread of bird flu in birds, cows and other animals. They check for changes in the virus that might be dangerous to humans. So far, no changes have been found that would make the virus spread to humans more easily.

Can the flu spread through milk?

The H5N1 virus has been found in milk from infected cows. But milk sold in grocery stores is safe, reports FDA. New rules are in place to make sure milk from sick cows does not enter our food supply.  And milk sold in U.S. stores is heated to kill harmful bacteria and viruses. That process is called pasteurization.

Pasteurization is very effective. It has been used for a long time to protect people from diseases such as influenza viruses. And previous tests show it works to protect against H5N1 in eggs, which are heated to a lower temperature than milk. Testing is underway to confirm that it inactivates the virus in milk, but it’s very likely that it does.

To stay safe, FDA recommends avoiding raw (unpasteurized) milk.

Is it safe to eat chicken and eggs?

Yes, as long as you follow food safety guidelines. Cook poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165 to kill off bacteria and viruses, including bird flu.

What happens if bird flu does spread widely to humans?

If that happens, it won't be like COVID-19. Antiviral drugs are already available to treat H5N1 bird flu. And, while a seasonal flu shot won't protect against H5N1 bird flu, we already know how to make a vaccine.

In fact, two closely related viruses are already available for use in making an H5N1 vaccine. And recent tests show that they are still good candidates.

What can I do to protect myself from bird flu?

To protect yourself, avoid contact with animals that might have the bird flu. That means:

  • Steer clear of wild birds. They can be infected without seeming sick. The virus is commonly carried by water birds and shorebirds, including ducks, geese and storks. It's not common in songbirds and other backyard birds.
  • Avoid contact with sick or dead birds, including poultry, and other wildlife.
  • Don't touch surfaces that may be contaminated with animal feces, raw milk or other materials from potentially contaminated animals.
  • Don't eat or drink unpasteurized milk or other unpasteurized dairy products.

Whether viruses are surging or not, it's always smart to wash your hands often and well to avoid spreading illness. Learn how to clean your hands the right way.

When should I see a healthcare provider?

If you have flu symptoms and think you might have been exposed to infected animals, you should see your healthcare provider. Both bird flu and the usual flu benefit from prompt treatment. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Fever.
  • Sore throat.
  • Coughing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Eye redness or irritation.
  • Body aches.


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