WHAT IS AVIAN FLU?  Bird flu or Avian Influenza (AI) is an animal (or epizootic) disease, caused by a virus which usually infects birds. It is commonly found in wild birds but intermittently it spreads to commercial poultry with serious economic repercussions. On very rare occasions it has jumped the species barrier and infected humans. Bird flu rose to prominence in 1997 when the H5N1 strain presented itself in many countries throughout the world but even then there were very few reported cases of human infections and subsequent deaths. The term bird flu is generally used to describe the H5N1, H5N2, H5N8, H7N7, H7N9, and H9N2 avian influenza viruses.

2. WHAT IS A VIRUS?  It is a microorganism too small to see with the naked eye. It is unique in that it does not have its own metabolism. A virus needs a living host to multiply (takes over the metabolism of the host) and cannot multiply outside of the living host.

3.  HOW IS AVIAN INFLUENZA TRANSMITTED? Birds that are infected with AI shed the virus in their droppings or their mucous, which may also be released into the air. Contact with bird mucous or droppings through inhalation or direct contact with mucous membranes may lead to infection.

4.  HOW SERIOUS IS IT?  There are many different types of bird flu known to regularly infect birds around the world. Most strains infect only birds and do not infect humans. The strain that has infected people was called H5N1 but has now mutated or evolved into various strains as indicated in 1 above.

5.  WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF AI INFECTION IN HUMANS? Human infections may be asymptomatic or present mild, flu-like symptoms. Severe infections may result in pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome and multi organ failure leading to death. However human infections are rare and very few deaths have been recorded worldwide. Compared to other zoonotic infections AI is one of the lowest risks.

6.  IS THERE AVIAN INFLUENZA (AI) IN SOUTH AFRICA? Avian flu is an ongoing potential threat to the poultry industry in all countries in the world including South Africa. The last major outbreak in SA occurred in 2017. Since then there have been isolated reports of outbreaks particularly in the Ostrich industry.

7.  IF THERE IS AN OUTBREAK OF AI IS IT DANGEROUS TO EAT CHICKEN OR EGGS? It is not necessary to avoid eating chicken and eggs and it is very easy to ensure that poultry and eggs are cooked thoroughly so that the virus is neutered completely. Locally produced, abattoir certified, and approved poultry products are safe to eat. In addition the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform & Rural Development, keeps a close surveillance on AI outbreaks all over the world.

8.  WHAT OTHER PRECAUTIONS SHOULD ONE TAKE AGAINST AI? Good hygiene is key to prevention, so always wash your hands before and after preparing food to avoid infection. In addition all utensils used in food preparation should always be kept clean. These good hygiene practices should always be followed to prevent all potential infections from food such as bacterial food poisoning as well.

9.  ARE THERE ADVANCE WARNING SIGNS THAT AI IS ENTERING A COUNTRY? Regrettably there are none and the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health confirm this. The operative key to addressing all animal health threats is vigilant monitoring and surveillance and appropriate veterinarian intervention. Bio security practices at poultry farms are critical in managing the spread of the disease.


  • No epidemiological evidence exists to show that people have become infected with AI after eating properly cooked poultry and eggs.
  • AI viruses are not killed by freezing or refrigeration.
  • Conventional cooking (temperatures above 70*C for chicken or 60*C for 4 minutes for eggs) will kill the viruses.
  • Home slaughtering and preparation of sick or dead poultry for food poses a great risk and is hazardous!
  • Even if an outbreak should occur, the likelihood of infected poultry entering the industrialised slaughtering and processing chain and eventually being handled by a consumer or a restaurant worker is very low.

Author: Mr D E Watson (BSc Chem Eng, MBA)                 Date: December 2020

Information: SAPA (South African Poultry Association)

Sources           Lucia Anelich of Anelich Consulting

                         WHO (World Health Organization)

                         Department of Agriculture, Land Reform & Rural Development