Don’t let Avian Flu ground you: what to know

The recent discovery of the H5N1 Avian Flu on mainland Germany has raised some concerns about handling bird remains, specifically handling remains after an aircraft birdstrike.  

In light of recent concerns over health risks to humans from infectious avian diseases such as Avian Influenza (Bird Flu or H5N1 or HPAI viruses), it is important to check with your respective public health, animal health, and natural resource agencies for up-to-date information.  The following guidelines are provided for those who routinely collect remains for birdstrike identification and are advisory in nature and intended to provide guidance for those working with or handling wild birds with specific reference to highly pathogenic avian influenza. The guidance reflects information available, mainly from the U.S. Geological Survey website, as of October 2005.  The following information was obtained from various sources including: CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA), USGS Wildlife Health Center, CSL (Central Sciences Lab, UK), and the World Health Organization.

The recent reports of avian influenza in Asia and Europe have caused concern that a mutant version could infect the human population.

Although avian influenza is potentially fatal, it is very difficult and rare to contract. Only 117 people who have had repeated contact with infected poultry over the last two years have caught avian influenza; 60 of those people have died. Until now, most cases of bird to human transmission involved people working in close proximity to large numbers of infected birds. Recently, human cases of avian influenza have been reported from Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Vietnam. Currently the H5N1 virus has not been found in the United States.

The main routes of transmission are likely through bird droppings or bodily fluids of birds onto the hands and then into the mouth, or by infected airborne particles coming into contact with the nose, eyes or mouth. The CDC recommends that travelers to Asian countries with known outbreaks of H5N1 avoid poultry farms, contact with animals in live food markets, and avoid contact with any surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals.

Simple hygiene precautions can effectively stop the first route of transmission and a single dead bird or a small number of dead birds are unlikely to generate airborne particles.  Thoroughly washing hands with soap and water (or with alcohol-based hand products if the hands are not visibly soiled) is a very effective method for inactivating influenza viruses, including HPAI. These viruses are also inactivated with common commercial disinfectants such as detergents, 10 percent household bleach and alcohol The virus is more difficult to inactivate in organic material like feces or soil.

Those handling apparently healthy wild birds in areas where HPAI H5N1 is NOT suspected should work in well-ventilated areas if working indoors.  When working outdoors, try to work upwind of animals to lower the risk of inhaling aerosols such as dust, feathers, or dander.

When possible, wear rubber or latex gloves that can be disinfected or disposed of and protective eyewear or a face shield while handling animals.  Wash hands often as described above, and disinfect work surfaces and equipment between sites.  Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling animals.

Follow the advice above for a birdstrike event where there is no reason to expect that the bird was carrying an infectious disease. If there is any concern about airborne particles, wear a face mask and safety glasses when handling bird remains. Spray the impact area with 70 percent ethanol (not water) and wipe the area with a paper towel. Place the paper towel in a Ziploc bag. If you are involved in removing large numbers of birds in a confined space such as clearing pigeons from a hangar, wear a protective suit and a respirator.  (Courtesy of HQ USAF Safety Center Web site)