Experts address consumers’ fears about risks of contracting bird flu

Apparently we are not in any danger from the flocks of birds flying around town, say two experts: Professor Giorgos Koptopoulos, of Thessaloniki University’s department of immunology and infections diseases in animals, and Professor Dimitris Tibis, of the Athens Technical Institute (TEI) department of food microbiology. Replying to questions from Kathimerini, they discussed the characteristics of the bird flu virus and the kind of precautions we should be taking. According to both experts, there is no risk in consuming well-cooked chicken or eggs. Are we in any danger from city bird life or from house pets, such as parrots? The specific virus has only been found in turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens, and not in other bird species, since there has to be a receptor for the virus in the cells of the organism in order for it to be affected. The birds we have in our homes, as well as pigeons, swallows and sparrows are not affected by the virus, as they do not have that particular receptor. Migratory birds cannot become ill but they can be carriers of the virus. Can a chicken be a carrier? From the minute the virus enters a chicken coop or commercial poultry farm, the birds will fall ill within the next six hours to three days. During that time, there will be mass deaths that indicate the presence of the disease. Why should we be afraid of migratory birds? Because they could be a carrier of the disease and leave it in their droppings, particularly in places where they winter or stop in transit, such as wetlands. Local birds then carry the virus to the nearest chicken coops and infect poultry, which are vulnerable to the virus. That is why there is a ministerial decree ordering the confinement of poultry so that they cannot come into contact with other birds that could be carrying the disease. What danger is there to chickens kept near homes and how can they be protected? Human beings are not so vulnerable that they can be infected by the virus just by looking at a chicken. One cannot catch the virus from poultry droppings. One would have to come into direct contact over a period of time with sick birds; in addition, one would have to have a weakened immune system to be infected. For example, in Southeast Asia over 180 million poultry birds were put down, 170 people have taken ill, 75 of whom have died. Most of the victims have been children; that is because children’s immune systems are not sufficiently developed. Over time, microbes in the environment stimulate the immune system (without making the person ill) and make it more resistant. Elderly people’s immune systems are often weakened due to advanced age. Are hunters at risk from their prey? A hunter shoots a bird, picks it up and takes it home, plucks it and cooks it. He is at risk throughout this entire process if he is not careful. However, if the bird is well-cooked, even if it is a carrier, it cannot affect those who consume it. However, because hunters move around in areas where there are migratory birds, they could carry the virus on their shoes or the tires of their cars into areas where there is poultry and thereby spread the disease. Hunters should follow instructions regarding disinfection or even better, stop going into areas where there are migratory birds. What about free-range chickens? Since October 1, 2005, there has been a ministerial decree in force stating that poultry must be kept in enclosed areas so that it does not come into contact with migratory birds and risk infection. On January 18, 2006, a European Commission regulation was issued stating that poultry kept enclosed for up to 12 weeks may still be classified as «free range.» What about eating eggs? There is no danger, at least not from bird flu. In any case, there is no way an egg from a sick bird can end up on our table. Of course, we should not eat raw eggs for fear of salmonella. If we want, we can wipe the outside of the egg but it does no good to wash it. On the contrary, washing an egg does away with the external membrane that prevents microbes from entering. In any case, we are absolutely safe if we follow hygienic procedures during food preparation. What are these measures? Irrespective of the threat of bird flu, we must be very careful when cooking chicken or eggs, mostly because of salmonella which can result in a serious case of food poisoning. We should not eat raw or lightly cooked eggs because only subjecting them to low heat does not guarantee safety. When cooking chicken, we must be very careful not to let the cooked poultry meat come into contact with any raw meat. We should use different or well-washed knives and other utensils for each and under no circumstances should we cut up a raw chicken with the same knife or on the same surface on which we cut salad. Also, before cooking a chicken, we should make sure it is completely defrosted to ensure that all parts are well-cooked.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.