Bird flu FAQ: Can I still feed birds? I've seen a dead bird at the beach — what do I do?

Avian Influenza is in the news and you might be wondering if it is safe to eat poultry or eggs now. Or if garden robins or pigeons in your local park are at risk
Bird flu FAQ: Can I still feed birds? I've seen a dead bird at the beach — what do I do?

"BirdWatch Ireland is very concerned by the increasing number of reports of sick and dead seabirds that it has been receiving in recent days. Gannets, in particular, appear to be badly affected." Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Avian influenza — or 'avian flu' or 'bird flu' — is in the news a lot at the moment. You might have seen distressing images of dead or sick seabirds on social media or in news reports. Even if you haven't been to the beach since the summer or if you live in the city, you might have concerns. 

It is an animal disease and it is rare for it to affect humans: we've asked the HSE as well as the Department of Agriculture and Birdwatch Ireland for some information. 

Is my health at risk from avian influenza?

Avian Influenza (AI), commonly known as bird flu, is a notifiable animal disease and is a highly contagious viral disease affecting the respiratory, digestive and/or nervous system of many species of birds. It can also pose a threat to people and other animals in certain circumstances, but these types of infections are rare. The risk to public health is however considered to be very low. [HSE]

Is it safe to eat poultry or eggs now?

Properly cooked poultry meat and eggs do not pose any food safety risk. [HSE]

To date, no epidemiological data suggest that the disease can be transmitted to humans through properly cooked food (even if contaminated with the virus prior to cooking). Human cases are linked to close contact with infected poultry, and exposure to the virus during the slaughter and preparation of infected birds.

Irish produced poultry are free of the avian influenza virus and all poultry products on sale in Ireland have a very low risk of carrying the highly pathogenic strain of the virus. Poultry and poultry products can be prepared and eaten as usual, provided that they are handled hygienically while raw, and cooked thoroughly prior to consumption. [FSAI]

Are the wild birds in my garden at risk or could the pigeons on city streets and parks be a problem?

Pigeons and most garden birds are less susceptible to HPAI and no cases of HPAI H5N1 have been confirmed in these species in Ireland to date. [Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine]

So what birds are affected?

The Department (of Agriculture) carries out avian influenza surveillance in wild birds on a targeted list of species. This list of targeted wild birds species, most susceptible to HPAI, is drawn up by EFSA [European Food Safety Authority] based on species confirmed positive for the virus and adapted for Ireland in conjunction with NPWS [National Parks and Wildlife Service]. This is the current list of wild birds to be targeted for AI surveillance (H5 HPAI) in Ireland. [Dept of Ag]

I like to feed wild birds and watch them in my garden. Can I still do this?

From this Department’s perspective, it is most important that people ensure there is no contact between kept birds (poultry and pet birds) and wild birds. This is to mitigate the risk of kept birds becoming infected. Care should be taken when siting bird feeders not to place them close to where poultry or captive birds are located to reduce the risk of disease spread.

I am not a poultry farmer but I have some pet ducks/hens and I love them. Are they a danger or are they in danger?

All poultry owners (even if only 1 or 2 birds) should be registered with the Department — instructions on how to register are available on our website.

In addition, the biosecurity regulations introduced on September 19 apply to all flock owners no matter how small. Further information and guidance for members of the public and flock owners can be found on the Department’s website — Avian influenza (bird flu) [Dept of Ag]

With an increasing number of cases of wild bird infection seen along the coast, all keepers of poultry and captive birds should implement stringent biosecurity measures to mitigate the risk of the disease spreading to poultry and captive birds. Poultry farmers and people who keep game birds or pets should be familiar with the signs of avian influenza, and should closely monitor their birds for signs of disease and report any suspicions to their local Regional Veterinary Office. [HSE]

I have a dog and we love beach walks — are these still ok?

Do not pick up or touch sick, dying or dead poultry or wild birds, and keep any pets away from them [Dept of Ag]

Keep pets away from wild birds. Consider keeping pets indoors or on leash in areas wild birds frequent. [HSE]

My child loves to collect feathers on walks. Is this risky?

Avoid untreated bird feathers (such as those found in the environment) and other bird waste. Maintain good personal hygiene with regular hand washing with soap and use of alcohol-based hand rubs. [Dept of Ag]

What do I do if I see an injured bird? 

Do not touch sick or dead wild birds. Human cases of this strain of Avian Influenza are very rare. However, individuals should not touch sick or dead birds.

Report sightings of sick or dead wild birds. People can report any sightings of sick or dead wild birds to the local Regional Veterinary Office or contact the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine at 01-4928026.

It is also important to note that potentially sick birds should not be brought to wildlife rehabilitators or animal rescues centres, as this could risk infecting the birds already in their care. [Birdwatch Ireland]

I was walking and saw some dead birds. Could I spread the disease?

Dr June Fanning, deputy chief veterinary officer at the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine, explains the risks:

“Avian Influenza is highly infectious to birds. Anyone travelling from an area known or suspected to be affected with avian influenza or where wild birds have been found dead should not come into contact with poultry or captive birds without prior cleaning and disinfection of clothing and footwear. It is vital that poultry owners and keepers of captive birds maintain the highest standards of biosecurity to protect their birds. Strict biosecurity remains the number one preventative measure to introduction of avian influenza into poultry and captive bird flocks."

Have people here in Ireland been infected? What are the human health issues?

Dr Keith Ian Quintyne, consultant in public health medicine, health protection, HSE Public Health Area A outlines the human health issues: “To date, no human cases of infection have been reported in Ireland or the EU. Even though the risk to human health is very low, human cases are reported periodically from China, and the UK has recently identified a single human case of avian influenza. Where human disease has occurred, it has tended to be mild. However, elderly people and vulnerable patients living with immunosuppression could be at greater risk of developing more severe disease.”

* Here is the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control factsheet on avian influenza

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