12/10/2017 12:45 SAST | Updated 12/10/2017 12:45 SAST

7 Things You Should Know About Bird Flu

For starters, the chance of avian flu affecting humans is slim. So we can all relax.

A chicken farm.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
A chicken farm.

The current bird flu strain is no threat to human beings, although it is lethal to birds.

Poultry producers in the Western Cape have culled an estimated two million birds since June, following the outbreak of avian influenza (H5N8), also known as bird flu.

The total loss on one Gauteng farm reportedly amounted to R34.5 million, with the producer having to cull 525,000 birds.

Here we address seven concerns you may have about the virus:

1. Where does this virus come from?

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), water birds are the natural hosts of the virus, particularly migratory birds.

There are two main types: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) which causes asymptomatic or mild infection in birds, and the severe virus strains, which cause death and are called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses.

There is no known cure yet for bird flu.

2. How is it transmitted?

Infected birds shed the virus through their mucus or droppings, which may be released into the air. Being in direct contact with the mucus or inhaling it may lead to infection.

3. Can I get it from my food?

No. The process of cooking kills the virus.

More importantly, mass culling, which is the most effective way to prevent the virus from spreading, ensures that it does not reach your dinner table.

In a media briefing following the recent outbreak, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana said: "The meat that is on the shelves is safe to eat as it has gone through a process of meat inspection and certified fit for human consumption."

4. Can birds infect people?

The NICD says this is highly unlikely, although appropriate precautions must always be taken. Do not handle sick or dead birds.

Zokwana emphasised that the virus does not usually affect people.

However, people who have close contact with birds who have the virus, whether alive or dead, can be infected, cautioned the NICD. These people will most likely include those who work or live on poultry farms.

In the rare case of human infection, the virus does not normally spread from person to person.

5. How does a person know he or she is infected?

Flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, body pain, fever and sore eyes, may present in an infected person. With severe infections, however, pneumonia, multi-organ failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome may present and this may lead to death.

6. What is the appropriate treatment?

Some infections can be treated with the same medication used to treat human influenza.

The NCID recommends supportive healthcare for people with severe infections and some cases may require isolation to prevent secondary cases.

7. What is the risk of the virus spreading?

Before the recent outbreak, the more severe strains of the virus were found mostly in the Western Cape in 2004, 2006 and 2011-2013. The Institute says the main risk of the virus spreading is through transmission by wild migratory birds.