Avian Influenza

H5N1In 1997, the first reports of a human death from avian influenza originating in the Far East appeared in the press. By 2003 it reached a more noticeable level.

This was attributed to a specific avian flu form in poultry which also occurs periodically in wild birds. The particular strain of avian flu involved is called the H5N1 variety and is pathogenic.

At the time this is being written (2006 – see foot of article for 2010 update…) the number of recorded human deaths is less than 100 world wide. This may change if H5N1 changes its structure (a mutation) which can then infect humans. It would then be possible to transmit the infection to other humans. A pandemic affecting the whole world would then ensue as happened in the early 1900’s when thousands died.

To clarify, why the current deaths have occurred before any mutation has been proven is not clear. The conditions that prevail, where the deaths have been recorded to date, seem to be in villages and “farms” where such poultry are kept in appalling ways. Even sick birds are killed and eaten and poultry blood swallowed. Uncooked poultry may also be a factor.

“Bird flu”, the common term, has now spread among poultry, probably carried by migrating wild birds. It is widespread in Africa (Egypt, Nigeria) and also India. In Eastern Europe there have been small outbreaks in wild birds.

Thousands of all forms of poultry are being culled and burned where any outbreak has been confirmed by laboratory diagnosis which for the most part seems to be carried out at Weybridge in Surrey, England. The fact that the African front has opened up presents a formidable problem. Poultry exist in free range conditions in thousands of small villages where they mingle with humans. Eradication of the disease will be tremendously difficult in such conditions if there is a mutation.

Experts are unsure as to how much, and what kind of genetic changes would be required for the virus to become a global health problem. Nor do they know how long this process will take – if it does occur at all. Some are adamant that it will “cross over”. Others are not convinced. It is estimated that a global pandemic would cost the world economies £455 billion ($650 billion).

Symptoms in Humans

An infected person would start by getting a headache followed by chills, a cough, aching body, a stuffy nose and a sore throat – similar to normal winter flu. However, in avian flu the extra symptoms that will emerge will be eye infections, pneumonia and severe breathing difficulties.


A virus cannot be killed, as with a bacterium. Yes, there are palliative drugs for easing cold sores, but only a specific preventative vaccination can really stop any viral transmission to any extent. However, until a clear case of exactly the mutated form of avian flu has taken place, a vaccine cannot be developed. Furthermore, the information is that it takes a minimum of six months to create such a vaccine and millions would require treatment. A massive problem causing thousands to die.

To Your Birds

Let us assume that your aviary and its valuable contents are threatened by an outbreak some 100 miles away. What should you do?

The advice from the UK Ministry involved (DEFRA) is to close the aviary and contain the birds completely so that any infected wild birds that pass over cannot infect them. It has always been sensible advice for years for outside flights to be covered to prevent infection from any wild bird diseased droppings.

The practice of biodiversity is advised by which you use a disinfectant trough into which you add Virkon S or F10 to water before stepping slowly through it before entering the birdroom. Similarly you must realise that most infections are carried on the hands. Fanciers visiting you should be asked to wash their hands outside the birdroom, in the solution used, as well as going through the foot trough before allowing them inside your aviary. It is vitally important this procedure is not neglected.

If a media announcement of a case is made, it is suggested that you approach your surrounding neighbours quickly, stating the precautions that you have taken. This should allay any concerns they may have. Do this before they approach you with their views based on sometimes erroneous information they may have heard.

It goes without saying, to a degree, that should a world wide outbreak occur, the budgerigar exhibition would be devastated. Time can only tell the outcome.

Situation in United Kingdom – January 2010

The current situation on Avian Influenza (AI) is that the UK National Ministry, DEFRA, announced in November 2008, that:

“The UK became officially free from AI disease according to the rules laid down by The World Organisation for Animal Health.”

Trade with the European Union resumed on 8th July, 2008.

It must be noted that there are a variety of forms of AI, but it is only the H5N1 strain that is pathogenic to humans.

Sir Liam Donaldson, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, who is retiring, claimed in 2005 that:

“This strain will probably kill 50,000 people and a final death toll of 750,000 deaths is not impossible.”

The final death toll amounted in the UK to – nil!

It is stressed however that due care still be taken at bird shows with the practices used under the heading of “bio-security” still being continued.


Filed Under: Health



About the Author: Gerald Binks began breeding budgerigars when he was 12 years old and is now arguably the most knowledgeable budgerigar fancier in the world. He has bred his fair share of Best in Show birds, judged in no less than 20 countries, founded the World Budgerigar Association, and has published two of the three classic books on the hobby. His stud in the UK attracts fanciers from near and far and is always high on the list for those wishing to purchase BA23 quality budgerigars.

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  1. http://www.fao.org/avianflu/en/qanda.html

    Sharing FAO – Agriculture Department, Avian Influenza Animal Production & Health Division Q&A for reference study.

    Habib Ur Rehman, Pakistan

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