Factsheet on Bird Flu (Avian Influenza) for the General Public

There is quite a lot of bird flu (avian influenza) around at the moment. This factsheet explains what bird flu is, why it is important, and how you can protect yourself from bird flu.

What is Influenza?

Influenza (or flu) is a respiratory infection that is very contagious (can spread easily from one person to another).  It is caused by the influenza (flu) virus.

There are lots of different types of flu viruses - the commonest type of flu is seasonal influenza. Seasonal influenza (or ‘the flu’) is the type of flu that we see every winter in our communities, which can lead to a lot of winter illness.  There is a seasonal flu vaccine that can help protect against seasonal influenza. 

Flu viruses are constantly changing, and new and different types of flu viruses are appearing each year. Occasionally, a flu virus appears that is very contagious and different to previous flu viruses, and our vaccines are not as effective at stopping its spread. Such flu viruses can spread around the world. When this happens, this is known as a flu pandemic.

What is Bird Flu/Avian Influenza?

Bird flu or avian influenza (AI) is a type of influenza that affects birds. Bird flu is caused by different types of flu virus. Some types - known as low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) - produce very mild illness in birds. However, a small number of flu viruses produce extremely severe illness in birds, and are know as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). HPAI bird flu can spread very rapidly between individual birds and between flocks of birds. When HPAI bird flu gets into a flock of birds, it can kill 100% of the birds in the flock. This HPAI bird flu is the type of bird flu we are talking about here.

Since the early 2000s, HPAI bird flu in birds has spread from Asia to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, mainly through bird migration. Cases in birds are occasionally reported from North America. 

What type of birds are most likely to get bird flu?

Bird flu can affect a very wide range of common wild birds. Wild birds with bird flu can spread it to domestic poultry (such as chickens, turkeys and ducks), and if bird flu gets into domestic poultry flocks, it produces the same amount of disease and death as in wild birds.  Bird flu can also affect other animals, including horses and cats, but rarely dogs.  Other animals can spread bird flu to birds though, including poultry, and occasionally to people.

Why is there so much in the news about birds and bird flu?

Wintertime is the time of highest risk for bird flu in Ireland. HPAI bird flu was first identified in Ireland in November 2021. Since then there have been a number of cases in birds in Ireland. This has been part of a very large increase in bird flu in Europe. Because bird flu can pass from wild birds to poultry, it is a threat to Ireland’s domestic poultry flocks. And since bird flu is so dangerous to poultry flocks, if bird flu is found in a flock, the entire flock on the poultry farm has to be slaughtered, along with other measures to prevent bird flu spreading to other farms. Preventing bird flu from getting into poultry flocks is therefore extremely important.

Can people catch bird flu?

Yes, but unlike in birds, very few people have become infected with bird flu, because it is not easily spread from birds to people, or between people. Spread of bird flu from birds to people requires very close contact with live infected birds or their droppings, or following slaughtering, plucking, butchering or preparing infected poultry for eating.

What are the symptoms of bird flu in people?

Most people infected with bird flu get a fever (38°C or higher) followed by flu-like symptoms, including cough, runny nose, sore throat, and shortness of breath. Diarrhoea is often present early on in the illness, but may start up to one week before the flu-like symptoms. People can also have stomach pain, vomiting or headache.

How dangerous is bird flu in people?

The type of bird flu currently found in Asia can produce serious disease in people.  Fortunately, bird flu in people is not common. Since 2004, in Asia and elsewhere, there have been about 800 human cases of bird flu, half of whom have died.  It is important to know that the type of bird flu that is present in Europe at the moment, although very dangerous to birds, is different to the version seen in Asia, and, so far, has produced only extremely mild symptoms in people in Europe.

Why is it so important to prevent bird flu infections in people?

Although is very unusual for people to catch bird flu, it can happen. In Asia, it is important to prevent people getting bird flu because the type found there is very serious in people. In Europe, although the type of bird flu is much less serious in people, it could be passed from people to Irish poultry flocks leading to severe disease among birds.

A very big threat to people from bird flu is due to the fact that flu viruses are always changing. At the moment, bird flu virus does not spread easily between people. However, it could change and become able to spread more easily from person-to-person. The virus can also change if a person catches bird flu when they are already sick with seasonal flu. This could allow the two viruses to mix and change to a type that spreads easily from person-to-person. If this happens it could start a flu pandemic.

Does the seasonal flu vaccine protect against HPAI?

No. The flu vaccine that is produced each year only protects against seasonal flu. At the moment, there is no vaccine to prevent bird flu in people. Seasonal flu vaccine can reduce the risk of a person becoming sick with seasonal flu and bird flu at the same time. This can prevent the two types of flu mixing and becoming more easily spread from person-to-person.

How big a risk is bird flu to the general public in Ireland?

It is not a big risk at all. It is important to remember that the numbers of bird flu cases in birds in Ireland is not very high. And because the number of bird flu cases is not high, and bird flu is very hard for people to catch, the risk of bird flu to the general public is therefore extremely low. Even in the general outside environment, the risk to adults and children will be almost nil. While the risk is extremely low for the general public, avoiding birds and their droppings is important (see What should I do if I see dead birds?).

There are some groups of people including vets, poultry workers and others whose work may bring them in contact with wild birds or poultry, that puts them at a slightly increased risk of bird flu, but there are systems in place to protect these workers (see Where can I go to get more information?). 

Can I catch bird flu from eating poultry or eggs?

No. There is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or eggs can infect people with bird flu. Irish poultry and eggs when properly cooked are perfectly safe to eat.

Poultry should be cooked according to the manufacturers’/producers’ instructions. Poultry should be cooked to at least 70˚C in the thickest part of the meat. Poultry is properly cooked when there is no pink meat remaining and all juices from the bird run clear.

Consumers, caterers and food manufacturers can prepare, use and eat eggs as normal, following good hygiene practices. Use soap and hot water to wash hands after handling raw eggs or raw poultry, and to clean surfaces and utensils that have come into contact with raw eggs and poultry meat.

How can I avoid getting bird flu?

The best way to protect yourself against bird flu is to avoid contact with birds. When birds come into contact with bird flu, they become extremely sick very quickly, and nearly all will die. Despite the likelihood being low that any dead birds you see will have died from bird flu, you should avoid contact with any dead birds, and their droppings. 

As birds carry a wide range of infections, it is always important to avoid contact with birds and bird droppings, and to ensure you thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water if your hands come in contact with bird droppings.

What should I do if I see dead birds?

Full information on bird flu is available from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

It is important to:

  • Never handle birds that appear sick or are found dead
  • Never pick up or touch sick, dying or dead poultry or wild birds, and keep any pets away from them - dogs should be kept on a lead when walking in areas where there are sick or dead wild birds
  • Avoid all contact with any surfaces contaminated with bird droppings
  • Avoid contact with all untreated bird feathers (such as those found in the environment) and other bird waste
  • Maintain good personal hygiene with regular hand washing with soap or the use of alcohol-based hand rubs
  • If you find dead waterfowl (ducks, geese or swans) or other dead wild birds, you should report them to: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) at 01 492 8026. If you find any dead wild birds, you can also report these to DAFM on this website.

Where can I go to get more information?

HPSC – Avian Influenza

HPSC – FAQs on Avian influenza

HPSC – Bird Flu leaflet

HPSC – advice for poultry flock owners and poultry workers

Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine – reporting dead birds

Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine – advice for the general public

Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine – advice and guidance for flock owners

FSAI – FAQs on Avian influenza

Publication Date: 15th November 2022