Can Bird Flu Affect Humans? Highly Infectious Virus Found in Tyson Foods Chickens Flock

Chickens in one barn among a flock of 240,000 birds belonging to Tyson Foods have become infected with a lethal form of bird flu, the company confirmed.

The discovery intensifies an ongoing outbreak of bird flu in the U.S. that involves poultry operations in Kentucky and Virginia, and follows the destruction of 29,000 turkeys in Indiana.

The discovery of the H1N1 strain of highly infectious pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, last week in Dubois County, Indiana, was the first detection of the virus in commercial poultry in the United States since 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said.

The governmental department added that avian influenza does not present an immediate public health concern as a human case of these avian flu viruses has yet to be detected in the U.S.

A spokesperson for Tyson Foods told Newsweek one barn among a flock of 240,000 in Kentucky had chickens that tested positive for bird flu.

Tyson Foods said in a statement to Newsweek: "We are actively working with state and federal officials to prevent the spread of the virus. Although the origin of the infection is not known, avian influenza has been found in migratory wild birds, which play a significant role in spreading the disease."

We are "prepared for situations like this, and we have robust plans in place, which we are now executing," it added, including "heightening biosecurity measures at other farms in the region, placing additional restrictions on outside visitors, and continuing our practice of testing all flocks for avian influenza before birds leave the farms."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said according to the World Health Organization (WHO) over 700 cases of bird flu in humans have been recorded globally since November 2003.

The CDC says that though bird flu can cross species and infect humans, this cross-transmission is rare. Infection usually occurs as a result of infected birds shedding avian virus in their saliva, mucous, and feces which then gets into a person's eyes, nose, or mouth, or is inhaled.

The CDC adds that this can happen when the virus is in the air in droplets or even possibly dust and a person breathes it in, or when a person touches something that has the virus on it then touches their mouth, eyes, or nose.

Cross infection also usually occurs when a person has unprotected contact with infected birds or surfaces contaminated with avian influenza viruses. But, the CDC reports some infections have been identified where direct contact was not known to have occurred.

When a person is infected with avian flu the resultant illness ranges from mild to severe.

In January, Newsweek reported on a rare case of avian flu crossing over to a human in the United Kingdom. The U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said at the time that the person in question, who lived in southwest England, had been in close contact with infected birds and there was no evidence of onward transmission.

In addition to avoiding unprotected close contact with birds, the USDA advises that to further offset the risk of cross-transmission of avian flu to humans, poultry and eggs should be cooked to an internal of 165F to kill bacteria and viruses.

What Other Risks Does an Avian Flu Outbreak Present?

These infections are concerning for non-health-related reasons, however, especially if more poultry operations in the country are found to be affected.

According to the USDA, the U.S. is the world's top producer of poultry, and number two in terms of exports, following the top exporter Brazil.

The U.S. was forecast to export 3.4 million tons of chicken meat in 2022, of total global export of 13.4 million tons. The growth in U.S. chicken meat export is partially due to the downturn in exports of chicken meat from the European Union which was caused by avian flu.

The USDA says as part of avian influenza response plans, federal and state partners are working together to provide additional surveillance and testing in regions surrounding where the affected flocks are located.

They add that anyone involved with poultry production from the small backyards up to the large commercial producers should review their biosecurity activities to assure the health of their birds.

The Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) is offering a biosecurity tool kit for poultry producers and a list of cases can be found on its website.

The site currently lists three cases in commercial birds during the current outbreak. This includes commercial turkeys, a mixed-species backyard flock in Fauquier County, Virginia, and the broiler chicken flock in Fulton County, Kentucky, belonging to Tyson foods.

Correction 02/17/22, 4:46 a.m. ET: This article and its headline were updated to clarify a barn of chickens among a flock of 240,000 birds was infected with bird flu.

Broiler Chickens
A stock image of a flock of broiler chickens. A flock of 240,000 birds belonging to Tyson Foods has been infected with avian flu. chayakorn lotongkum/GETTY

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