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Is Bird Flu a Risk to Humans?

Experts are keeping a close eye on the global outbreak in poultry amid rare cases in people

spinner image a man in a red plaid shirt feed a small group of chickens on farm grounds in winter
Matthew Hatcher / Getty Images

After an early fall and winter surge, flu season in the U.S. is finally winding down. But virus experts are not ready to turn their attention away from influenza just yet.

A global outbreak of avian influenza, also known as bird flu, has sickened millions of farmed poultry and wild birds, as well as other animals, including seals and foxes. A few cases have even popped up in humans.

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Here’s what you need to know about the evolving situation, and why it’s grabbing the attention of scientists and public health experts.

What is bird flu?

Just like humans can get infected with influenza, different versions of the virus can infect animals, including birds.

Bird flu is caused by influenza A viruses that spread among wild aquatic birds (ducks, geese, gulls, etc.) and can infect poultry (chickens and turkeys). Some of these strains, like the one behind the current outbreak, cause more severe disease than others, especially in poultry. Since 2022, more than 58 million birds in commercial and backyard flocks in the U.S. have been affected by the currently circulating H5N1 bird flu strain.

Sometimes bird flu can infect other animals, too, as is the case with H5N1, which has been detected in about 144 mammals in 23 states since May 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other countries have also reported infections in mammals.

Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic, says the infections likely happened when these mammals — seals, foxes, minks, etc. — either ate infected birds or encountered a carcass. Mammals exposed to environments with a high concentration of the virus are also susceptible to infection, Tim Uyeki, M.D., the chief medical officer of the CDC’s Influenza Division, said in a recent “Ask the Expert” post.

This spillover has caused some concern among health experts, since mammals “are closer in terms of their cellular properties to humans,” Binnicker says. “And what that tells us is that the virus may be adapting or changing enough where it can now cause infection and disease in these mammalian populations, so it’s just a step closer to adapting to the point where it could readily infect human cells.”

Are humans at risk from bird flu?

So far, that’s not the case. About 10 instances of bird flu in humans have been reported since January 2022 (one in the U.S.), and health experts maintain the current risk to humans is low, especially among those who are not in close contact with birds.

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The reason for the low risk? We have yet to see human-to-human transmission, says Sabrina Assoumou, M.D., an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University’s Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine. All reported cases in humans involved recent exposure to sick or dead poultry. “And that’s what would concern us a lot,” Assoumou adds, noting the high mortality rate of this H5N1 strain.

The circulating strain does not have the ability to easily bind to receptors in the upper respiratory tract of humans, which the CDC says would be needed to easily infect or transmit among people. That said, influenza viruses are known to evolve rapidly. “So we’re watching it very closely,” Assoumou says.

What about bird flu vaccines and treatments?

Your seasonal flu shot won’t protect you from a bird flu infection, but the CDC’s stockpile includes vaccine formulas that target bird flu. And one, in particular, closely matches the strain currently circulating. The CDC’s Uyeki said it “could be used to produce a vaccine for people, if needed, and would provide good protections against the circulating H5N1 viruses.” The CDC says it has been shared with vaccine manufacturers.

Similarly, the antiviral treatments approved for seasonal influenza are recommended for people infected with avian influenza, including H5N1, according to the CDC. Because antiviral treatments work best when started as soon as symptoms begin, contact your state or local health department and a health care provider right away if you get sick after being in close contact with potentially sick or potentially infected birds.

Symptoms of bird flu and seasonal flu are similar. Keep an eye out for:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Diarrhea
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What can you do to lower your risk of infection?

The advice right now from health experts is to exercise caution around sick or dead animals.

“If you own poultry or have birds on your property and any [of them] come down with an illness or die, do not handle the birds,” Binnicker says. “Contact your local or state public health officials to come and investigate.” (To keep your flocks from getting infected, take steps to prevent their exposure to wild birds, which carry the disease and don’t always appear sick.)

The same goes if you’re out hunting and come across dead animals or birds — don’t touch the carcass. “Because, again, the cases that have occurred in humans have been from direct interaction and exposure with an infected or dead animal,” Binnicker says.

Also, be sure to cook your poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria and viruses, including bird flu viruses, the CDC says.

“And then from the human side, just the lessons that we’ve learned through the pandemic: If you have a respiratory illness, stay home. If you have to go out in public, wear a mask and go get tested, because finding out what the cause of the disease is, that is also still very important,” Binnicker says. A health care provider can test you for bird flu with a swab of the nose or throat.

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