Five things to know about the bird flu

Avian flu has turned up on turkey farms in Minn.
In this Nov. 2, 2005 file photo, turkeys are pictured at a turkey farm near Sauk Centre, Minn. A dangerous strain of avian influenza has turned up at farms in Minnesota, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas and several western states.
Janet Hostetter | AP 2005

A virulent strain of bird flu has been reported at three turkey farms in Minnesota. Here are a few facts about what the outbreak means for Minnesota, and what's at stake for farmers.

1. Should people worry about avian flu?

Humans can get the virus if they come into direct contact with birds that are sick or have died from the highly pathogenic (or disease-causing) H5N2 strain of avian influenza. So far, no human infections have been detected in the United States. Nonetheless, if a person is infected with the virus, it can cause mild to severe respiratory illness. Symptoms can include fever, aches, red and itchy eyes, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

2. How is the flu transmitted from one farm to another?

The virus strain can spread through droppings or nasal discharge from an infected bird, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. The discharge and droppings from the birds contaminate dust and soil. This makes it possible for people to carry the virus on their shoes, clothes, equipment and vehicles. It is also possible that migrating waterfowl spread the disease.

3. What are the steps to prevent transmission?

To ensure that farms are taking the proper precautions, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and Minnesota Department of Agriculture have set up an incident command team to quarantine poultry premises in the control area and collect samples.

"Birds that are on the infected premises, the ones that have not died from the disease, will be depopulated ... so as to protect other flocks from getting infected," said Bill Hartmann, Minnesota state veterinarian.

That means uninfected birds on those farms will be killed to "make sure that the virus does not have anywhere to go," said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

4. What should consumers be concerned about?

Olson said the avian flu outbreak does not present a public health or food safety issue. "It is strictly [about] animal health or bird health," he said.

Carol Cardona, a professor of avian health at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, agreed. "There should be no impact on your food safety at all," she said.

5. How big is the Minnesota poultry industry, and what's at stake for farmers?

Minnesota's billion-dollar-plus turkey industry raises about 46 million birds each year, according to Olson, and produces more turkeys than any other state. The industry employs 3,900 people in Minnesota. The avian influenza outbreak in the state's poultry industry threatens economic disruption, the loss of both infected and uninfected birds, and a possible halt of exports to other countries.

Olson said that if turkeys die because of the virus, the farmer absorbs all the losses. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture will compensate growers for turkeys it euthanizes, Olson said.

Map: Avian flu in Minnesota