Bird Flu Safety Tips

Do you know about bird flu?

What is bird flu?

Avian influenza, or "bird flu," is a contagious disease of animals caused by viruses that normally infect only birds and, less commonly, pigs. Most strains of influenza originate in wild birds and never become deadly to birds or humans.

If bird flu only infects birds and pigs, why should I care?

While bird flu normally only infects birds, there is a particular variety of bird flu, identified by scientists as strain H5N1, which is spreading out of Asia and which does affect humans with deadly results.

But isn't that over in China or some place far away?

That's where H5N1 started, but it is spread via wild birds and has shown up in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. It is expected by scientists to show up everywhere in the world in short order.

How deadly is bird flu?

The H5N1 strain of avian flu has killed 57 percent of the people diagnosed with it. That's a higher death rate than the 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic  which killed more people than World War I.

It is also higher than the death rate for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, better known as SARS, which was regarded as a potential pandemic a few years ago with a 43 percent death rate.

What is a pandemic?

The World Health Organization identifies a pandemic as a worldwide outbreak of a new disease, for which humans have no immunity, that spreads easily among people and causes serious illness. In short, it's a global epidemic.

If bird flu is so bad, why aren't we having a pandemic?

The good news is that birds spread bird flu through saliva, nasal fluid and feces. Human cases of bird flu have mostly occurred after direct contact between people and infected birds. Since most people don't have such contact or direct contact with people who do, there have only been isolated infections in humans. Unlike the common cold, the H5N1 strain of bird flu virus just isn't very contagious to humans.

The bad news is that scientists are worried that with just slight genetic changes, the bird flu virus could become much more contagious and spark a full blown pandemic. That's what happened in 1918 when a bird flu virus changed just enough to spark a worldwide disaster.

But isn't there a flu shot or vaccine that we can take to be safe?

There is no vaccine for H5N1. Although they are being developed, vaccines are not expected to be available any time soon. And because the virus is likely to genetically change before becoming a pandemic, an effective vaccine would not be developed until months after a pandemic begins.

OK, so what can I do about bird flu?

Welcome to Bird Flu Safety Tips -  and keep reading.

Bird flu safety for you and your family

Tip 1: Be alert

Around the world, governments and international organizations are tracking the spread of bird flu.  Wild birds are a primary mechanism for spreading the virus and wild bird populations are being sampled for the disease. All suspicious illnesses and deaths of domestic birds and people who work with them are being scrutinized and bulletins released to the public. Watch you favorite news sources for bird flu information, but an easy way to keep up to date is the web site Bird Cause Flu which tracks all the latest news reports related to bird flu.

Tip 2: Be cautious

Of course, it's still possible to be infected with bird flu before the news gets out.  You don't want to be the person reported in the news as coming down with bird flu!

Most of us don't raise birds and have little exposure to them except buying poultry products at the grocery store. There is no evidence that anyone has been infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu from eating properly cooked poultry products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that cooking eggs until firm and chicken until it reaches 165 degrees will kill the virus.

Most large commercial poultry farms take extensive precautions against disease and will have far more detailed precautions than I can give here, but do you raise birds as a hobby or small business, or are you a bird hunter, or do you have birds as pets? All of these are situations where you could be exposed to bird flu. Again, these special activities require more precautions than I can conveniently detail here, but at the least you should make sanitation a priority and reduce contact with bodily fluids and excretions to a minimum.

Tip 3: Be prepared for a pandemic

OK, you're paying attention and limiting direct contact with birds. But what if the worst happens and a pandemic strikes?  Here's where some advanced planning and preparation will pay off.

Disaster Kit

First of all, you need to have a "disaster kit." A pandemic is a natural disaster like an earthquake or a hurricane except without physical damage to dwellings and other infrastructure. Widespread disruptions to public and commercial services are expected for the simple reason of illness or fear of infection in the people providing the services.  Therefore, you need to have a stockpile of supplies so that you and your family can exist on your own for some period of time. The US government has a disaster kit checklist which suggests a two week supply of food and water. I suspect that's a bare minimum, but it's up to you and the storage space you have available.

In any case, the kit should include:

  • Water (a gallon per day per person)

  • Non-perishable food which preferably doesn't require much water for cooking

  • A supply of any prescription medicines needed

  • First aid kit and over-the-counter medicines

  • Health supplies like liquid hand cleaner, toilet paper, diapers, baby wipes, and plastic bags

  • Various other emergency gear including flashlights, candles, batteries, radios, etc.


As has been all too evident in recent years, natural disasters bring out the worst in some people and you will have to consider how to deal with any human predators which may show up at your door. If your locality allows firearms and you are trained in their use, you likely already have some and are covered. If firearms are not an option, you need to consider what you can utilize for deterrence if the situation arises.

Job and business

Large businesses generally have a disaster plan and if you work for one, you should make yourself aware of it. Your preference should be for working at home if at all possible, but that may not be possible and many businesses may shut their doors during a pandemic.  Keep that and the resulting disruption in cash flow and the possible loss of cash availability from ATM's in mind.

If you own your own business, you need to develop a disaster plan and make your employees aware of it. Depending on your business and the severity of the pandemic, you may well be able to continue operations on some basis.

Going out in public

The primary route of contagion in a bird flu pandemic will be person-to-person and many large gatherings of people may be curtailed or halted. Schools, shopping centers, and public meetings are obvious examples, but elimination of all public contact is impossible.  To help reduce infection, use of filter masks or respirators is a good choice. These have been used for years in Asia during flu season and are effective against airborne particles that may carry the bird flu virus. The inexpensive 3M brand N95 and N100 masks are popular for this purpose and are available from a number of sources. Also, rigorous hand washing after going out in public is suggested.

Anti-viral drugs

There are two antiviral drugs, sold commercially (prescription required in USA) as Tamiflu and Relenza, that can reduce severity and duration of illness caused by many kinds of influenza. They must be administered within 48 hours of the onset of illness to be effective. They may improve survival rates for patients with H5N1, but the evidence is limited, according to the World Health Organization. It's a shot in the dark, but you might investigate obtaining a supply for your disaster kit.

Want to learn more?

We hope we have provided the basic knowledge you need for Bird Flu Safety, but if you need more information, please check out the articles in the Further Reading section as well as investigate the offerings of our advertisers:


Last updated: October 14, 2012 Bird Flu Safety Tips Copyright 2006-2012