1. What is avian influenza?
Avian influenza (also called ‘bird flu’) is a viral disease that primarily affects poultry and wild fowl. Domestic chickens and turkeys are very susceptible to the disease, which is fatal in most infected birds. However, aquatic fowl (ducks etc.) may have greater resistance to the disease. These aquatic fowl may therefore act as a reservoir for the disease, perpetuating transmission of the virus to other birds.
While it is primarily a bird disease, these viruses have a tendency to mutate and may occasionally spread to other animals and to humans.
Influenza infections in birds are divided in two groups on the basis of their pathogenicity:
- Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI): spreads rapidly causing serious disease with high mortality (up to 100% within 48 hours)
- Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI): causing generally a mild disease, may easily go undetected
The two types of pathogenicity result in very different forms of disease, and should not be confused. The H5N1 strain of the virus is a highly pathogenic form of avian influenza
2. Why is it in the news?
On 30 December 2016, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) announced that it had confirmed avian influenza subtype H5N8 in a wild bird in County Wexford. The wild duck (a wigeon) was found alive but unable to fly in Wexford Town on 28 December 2016. The finding is not unexpected given the detection of highly pathogenic H5N8 in wild birds in Great Britain in the last two weeks, and comes one week after the Minister introduced regulations under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 requiring the compulsory housing of poultry as a result of the increased threat.
On 9 January 2017, DAFM confirmed that the avian influenza subtype H5N8 detected in the wild bird found in Wexford, is the highly pathogenic strain that has previously been confirmed in the UK and mainland Europe. This is the only case detected in Ireland so far.
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has confirmed that although the H5N8 subtype can cause serious disease in poultry and other birds, no human infections with this virus have been reported world-wide and therefore risk to humans is considered to be very low.
3. Does the virus affect humans?
Some types of avian influenza can pass to people, but this is very rare. It usually requires very close contact between the person and infected birds.
Almost all cases in humans to date have been linked to close contact to diseased household flocks, often during slaughtering, de-feathering, butchering, and preparation of poultry for consumption.
4. Is it safe to eat poultry?
Yes. 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.
Normal cooking temperatures of 70°C and over will inactivate the virus, and therefore consumption of properly cooked poultry meat carries no risk of infection. Poultry should be cooked thoroughly, so that it reaches at least 70°C in all parts, ensuring that it is piping hot all the way through, with no pink meat left and until the juices run clear.
Normal hygienic practices regarding handling of raw poultry meat should be observed. Hands, utensils and surfaces should be thoroughly cleaned following contact with raw poultry products; and there should be adequate separation of raw food from cooked or ready-to-eat foods.
There have been reports of a few human cases potentially linked to consumption of raw poultry ingredients (e.g. raw blood-based dishes). It should therefore be emphasised that consumption of any raw poultry ingredients must be considered a high-risk practice and discouraged. This message is important not only for avian influenza, but also for preventing a range of other diseases transmitted through raw or undercooked poultry.
5. Are eggs safe to eat?
Yes. As Irish poultry flocks are currently free from avian influenza, Irish produced eggs do not carry a risk of infection with the virus. Consumers, caterers and food manufacturers should use and consume eggs as normal, following good hygiene practices. Use soap and hot water to wash hands after handling raw eggs and to clean surfaces and utensils that have come into contact with raw eggs. The World Health Organisation advises that in avian infected areas' eggs should be cooked until both the yolks and whites are solid.
As with poultry meat, there is no evidence that the avian influenza virus is transmitted to humans by consuming properly cooked poultry or eggs. For people, the risk arises from having close contact with birds that have the disease, not from the consumption of poultry or eggs.
6. Is poultry meat from affected countries safe?
Measures to prevent and control avian influenza are coordinated at EU level. EU import bans have been placed on potentially risky poultry products and susceptible imports from third countries with HPAI outbreaks.
Poultry imported into Ireland is therefore free of the avian influenza virus and may be used and consumed as normal ensuring that it is handled hygienically while raw, and cooked thoroughly prior to consumption. The virus is sensitive to heat. Normal temperatures used for cooking (so that food reaches 70°C in all parts) will kill the virus.
To date, there is no epidemiological evidence that avian influenza can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of cooked food, notably poultry meat and eggs. Whilst it is unlikely that the avian influenza virus could be passed on to humans by raw meat or eggs, cooking food properly (so that food reaches 70°C in all parts) would inactivate the virus and eliminate potential risk.
7. If poultry and poultry products from affected countries are safe, why are import restrictions in place?
Import restrictions of raw poultry products from affected areas are commonly adopted to prevent the potential spread of the virus to domestic poultry flocks. The prohibition on live poultry and their products from affected countries is a control measure designed to protect our animal health status. As an island, Ireland enjoys freedom from many animal diseases which are present in other countries, including avian influenza. It is in the interests of the health and welfare of our animals, and the marketability of our food products to maintain freedom from this disease.
8. Are eggs from chickens that are reared outside (e.g. free-range or organic eggs) safe to eat?
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) has a full range of contingency plans in place and, should an outbreak occur, measures will be initiated immediately to prevent the spread of the disease. Avian Influenza is notifiable to DAFM and it is a legal requirement to notify any unusual increase in mortalities or any suspicion of the disease to a veterinary practitioner and to DAFM.
When there is an outbreak in a domestic poultry holding, all birds must be culled and measures are taken to prevent the further spread of the infection to other holdings. Zones with movement restriction (protection and surveillance zones) are established. In these zones, movement of live poultry and certain poultry products are restricted. Poultry has to be kept indoors and must be closely monitored.
9. What are the recommended good hygienic practices that I should follow?
Normal good hygienic practices are recommended to reduce exposure to the virus and to reduce spread through food:
- Wash hands after handling raw poultry or eggs using soap and hot water
- Clean utensils and surfaces that have been in contact with raw poultry or eggs using soap and hot water
- Separate raw poultry or eggs from foods that will not be cooked fully before eating to avoid cross-contamination:
o Use separate cutting boards, knives and utensils for ready-to-eat food and raw poultry and eggs (unless they are thoroughly cleaned between uses, with soap and hot water)
o Store raw poultry in sealed containers on the bottom shelf of the fridge to prevent juices dripping onto ready-to-eat food
10. Is there specific legislation to deal with the threat of avian influenza in Ireland?
Yes. A number of different pieces of legislation are in place at both European Union (EU) and national level in relation to avian influenza. The main legislation is Council Directive 2005/94/EC which sets out what each country in the EU is required to do in relation to the prevention and early detection of avian influenza. It sets out the minimum control measures to be applied in the event of an outbreak and requires each country to draw up a specific contingency plan setting out the national measures to be implemented in the event of an avian influenza outbreak. This European directive is implemented in Ireland by S.I No. 701 of 2006.
11. What would happen if there is a suspected case of avian influenza in a poultry flock in Ireland?
The Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM) has a detailed contingency plan in place which sets out the actions to be taken in the event of avian influenza being suspected or indeed confirmed in an Irish poultry flock. The plan includes as wide range of specific measures to mitigate the risk of the disease spreading to other flocks and to protect the health of personnel working with the affected flock(s). This plan would be implemented in full in the event of avian influenza being suspected and/or confirmed in Ireland.
You can find more information on this on DAFM’s website
12. How can avian influenza be controlled in the poultry population?
Movement of live birds and their products is stopped from infected areas. All domestic poultry in the infected areas are slaughtered and their carcasses destroyed.
13. What should I do if I come across a dead bird?
Birds die from many different causes and it is highly unlikely that the dead bird died as a result of avian influenza. However, members of the public are asked to report incidents where multiple wild birds (e.g. 3 or more of same species and 5 or more of multiple species) of species, other than common garden birds or pigeons, are found dead in the same location and at the same time, to the DAFM Avian Influenza helpline (Tel: 0761064403) or to the local Regional Veterinary Office (contact details are available on DAFM's website)
14. Who is responsible for controlling avian influenza in Ireland?
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for controlling avian influenza in birds and mammals other than humans. Further information is available on the DAFM website
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has published a guidance document for the health system on its website for use in the event of an avian influenza outbreak in animals in Ireland. Guidance on the investigation and management of suspected human cases of avian influenza is also available.
Last reviewed: 10/1/2017