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Home > Useful Articles >>Avian Influenza H5N1 Primer

Avian Influenza H5N1 Primer

An Influenza primer – All About the Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Virus

First of all, I am not a doctor, but have been following this disease very closely, as it has the potential to absolutely devastate the Parrots in this country. This devastation would likely be either due to (1) misinformation and lack of early detection, (2) illegal/legal importation of Parrots or finches and non-CITES birds from Europe, Africa, and Asia, or, (3) the natural worldwide spread of the disease without early detection, possibly leading to a pandemic. Or, it could simply go away, like West Nile Virus.

Thus far, except for one anomaly in Great Britain, this is not a disease that was started by parrots, nor is it currently spread by parrots, nor has there been, to date, any positive cases of this virus in the USA in people, parrots, chickens, ducks, or migratory birds, nor has it jumped species (whereby humans can infect other humans). Problem is, with this disease, any or all of the above could be true tomorrow.

Who are the Current Disease Carriers?

The H5N1 virus is carried and transmitted to other birds by Chickens, Ducks, Geese, Pigeons, and migratory birds. Good news is, almost every single person of the sixty people infected thus far has worked among hundreds and thousands of these types of birds and caught it from the birds they clean and feed. So, if you do not work feeding thousands of chickens in Asia, Europe, or Siberia, you are not currently at risk.

The disease is spread in a similar fashion as Psittacosis. That is, a bird is infected with the virus, then, the bird sheds, or releases the virus in its droppings. The virus then becomes airborne, and can be transmitted simply by breathing the air exposed to the droppings.

According to the CDC website:

“Outbreaks of influenza H5N1 occurred among poultry (emphasis added) in eight countries in Asia (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos , South Korea , Thailand , and Vietnam) during late 2003 and early 2004. At that time, more than 100 million birds in the affected countries either died from the disease or were killed in order to try to control the outbreak. By March 2004, the outbreak was reported to be under control. Beginning in late June 2004, however, new outbreaks of influenza H5N1 among poultry were reported by several countries in Asia (Cambodia, China [ Tibet ], Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Russia [ Siberia ], Thailand, and Vietnam). It is believed that these outbreaks are ongoing. Most recently, influenza H5N1 has been reported among poultry in Turkey and Romania. Human infections of influenza A (H5N1) have been reported in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.”

The area that is most critical to the USA is the outbreak in Siberia in July of this year. Birds from Siberia go to Arctic nesting grounds, which are also frequented by migratory birds that migrate down the North American coast.

What is being done about all this?

As far as I can tell, not nearly enough is being done. In our industry, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is only concerned about imports and exports of endangered species, while the U.S.D.A. checks the health of those animals in the form of a rubber stamp on an international vet certificate-they never in fact inspect the birds – the local veterinarian does. And, birds are still going into quarantine stations, which remain open to date.

In fact, I strongly believe all quarantine stations should be closed immediately. Reason is, many finches currently imported are African Finches. European birds migrate down to Africa, and can easily infect these finches. The disease has just surfaced in Europe. Additionally, many finches are imported into Europe or Canada from Africa, before being imported into this country. As well, the birds are in very close quarters at these quarantine stations, and knowing how this virus spreads, the quarantine station could actually harbor and spread the disease – the exact opposite effect of its intention to stop disease. This is especially true now that some birds do not exhibit the mass flock deaths but simply become carriers of the virus.

Therefore, I see three very good reasons to immediately stop the importation of any Finch that do not come from and bred in South America. Feel free to call US Fish and Wildlife at 800-358-2104 and brave the voice prompts. And you can call U.S.D.A. at 352-333-3120 and express your opinion that they should absolutely get involved.

One good thing that is being done is the surveillance of American migratory highways by ornithologists, amateur bird watchers, vets, and Universities. The National Wildlife Health Center has been recruiting all of the above people to test birds caught in nets, shot on public grounds, and report on any mass deaths of flocks which could indicate the virus. Birds are routinely netted and tested for early detection.

Call your local Congressman and State Senator to express how important it is to you that this group is properly funded, and that the funding should commence NOW. Right now, other than you, they are our best defense.

What happens when the virus infects these Chickens, Ducks, Swans, and migratory birds?

First, there are normally signs of mass deaths in the flock, and those deaths are then investigated. That is, they are investigated in countries where the farmers have been educated about the disease. If found, all birds within a large radius should be culled, a nice word for killed and burned. One huge problem is that countries like Cambodia and Vietnam do not have the resources to inform the appropriate people, and the disease spreads as a result of their inappropriate (or no) action. Even though land values have tripled in Cambodia, they still put little or no money into educating their farmers and citizens about this horrible disease, putting neighboring countries and the entire world at risk. This is, I believe, the greatest challenge-informing and reacting quickly and decisively to any confirmed outbreak..

China has been swift and fierce in their response to this outbreak. They spare no manpower or birds, and quickly cull all poultry and related birds within a two mile radius of the outbreak. And I do mean EVERY bird. As sad as that fact is, and it is sad to think of how many of these creatures may not be humanely culled, it is a necessary evil and the only way currently known to stop the spread of the disease. More importantly, it reduces the chances of the disease jumping species and becoming a worldwide pandemic. And it contains the disease and protects other farmers and everyone else in the immediate area.

How about drugs and vaccines against the virus? The H5N1 virus currently infecting birds in Asia that has caused human illness and death is resistant to amantadine and rimantadine, two antiviral medications commonly used for influenza. Two other antiviral medications, oseltamavir and zanamavir, would probably work to treat flu caused by the H5N1 virus, but additional studies still need to be done to prove their effectiveness. There currently is no commercially available vaccine to protect humans against the H5N1 virus that is being seen in Asia and Europe . However, vaccine development efforts are taking place. Research studies to test a vaccine to protect humans against H5N1 virus began in April 2005, and a series of clinical trials is underway. For more information about the H5N1 vaccine development process, visit the National Institutes of Health website.

The problem is that the virus mutates quickly, and has not yet jumped species. That is, right now humans can get the disease from the above mentioned chickens, ducks, etc., who are infected, However, humans are not carriers, they can only be infected by poultry or migratory birds– the disease can not be spread from human to human in its current form. And even though migratory birds carry the disease, it is unlikely they can spread the disease to humans since they are normally viewed from a distance (unless they infect chickens or breeding birds-see below). Pandemics, or rapidly spreading viruses, strike when the easy-to-mutate influenza virus shifts to a strain that people have never experienced before, something that happened three times in the last century.

Until that occurs, it is nearly impossible to find a vaccine for the human-to-human mutation since the virus is, as of yet, unknown and does not even exist at the present time. Hopefully it will not mutate into a form that makes it contagious among humans, and will never exist.

However if it does mutate, what can we do and how will it affect people in the pet industry?

As far as what we can do, breeders should already be planning to cover all breeding birds kept outside to reduce likelihood of feces coming in contact with their flock.

As well, everyone should be careful about buying imported finches; many of the African finches come through Europe, and Europe does have some outbreaks of this virus. So it would make sense to curtail all purchases of any imported finches, foul, and pigeons until this virus has been contained. (It is not legal to import Parrots).

Keep an eye out for any vaccinations or food that may help the natural immune response to virus infection. For instance, Star anise extract has been found to be effective against some strains of the virus (it is used in the production of Tamiflu), and is also found in some bird foods, such as GoldenFeast Hookbill Legume. As well, Pretty Bird claims their new Natural Gold pellets contain “Nucleotides” that significantly assist the immune system in fighting off viruses.

Information is critical – this is not currently a disease that is caused by parrots, and the name “avian/bird flu” does not help matters. It should more accurately be named “Chicken” or “Poultry” flu. Yes, parrots and finches can become carriers. But as of now, they are not. Nor should they be, unless they get the disease from infected poultry or migratory birds.

What’s next?

So, all breeders who also have chickens should move the chickens away from the parrots, or vice-versa, as a precaution. Then, they need to either cover up all cages or bring them inside. If not, and the breeder’s chickens get the disease, the breeder will be forced to kill all of their birds, including the parrots. This is similar to how the American industrial farms currently set up their chickens – they house thousands of birds in hanger-sized barns which will at least prevent wild bird droppings from landing on the chickens and in their food.

Regarding eating chicken, although it is within the realm of possibility to catch the disease from eating poultry, all indications thus far are that it is very safe to eat chicken, as the disease is an airborne pathogen from the feces.

And, the industry needs to join forces and self-regulate. For instance, I believe it is irresponsible to import any birds right now from Europe, Africa, and Canada. Any stores doing so should be immediately inspected , and people should ask where the finches originated and when before purchasing any. This is for the protection of all reputable stores, and the industry as a whole.

On a possible positive note, West Nile Virus has basically fallen off the radar this year – it just stopped spreading, as my Pet Planet article two issues ago predicted. Maybe we’re lucky – this disease does not jump species, it does not make it to the USA, and it just becomes a non-event. That is the best-scene scenario.

Early detection will lead to containment and eradication. Please call any of the above authorities, including the President, and express your concern on this critical issue. And if you see dead wild birds, report them to the proper authorities immediately. You are the most important element of our defense against this potentially lethal pandemic.






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