Q: Do I need to be worried about bird flu if I keep chickens?
A: Probably not worried--but it's a good idea to be informed about it.
Bird flu, or Avian Influenza (AI), is a viral disease that can infect domestic poultry. There are two types of AI viruses: low pathogenicity (LPAI) and high pathogenicity (HPAI). Whether a virus is LPAI or HPAI depends on the severity of the illness it causes. HPAI is the extremely infectious and deadly-to-birds form of the disease that you've probably heard about. It can spread rapidly from flock to flock. In 2015, the USDA found some cases of HPAI in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, but no human illness from AI has ever occurred in this country.
Chickens and other domestic birds can get infected with AI through direct contact with infected waterfowl, other infected poultry, and water or feed that has been contaminated---basically the same way chickens can get other illnesses. In fact, getting the low pathenogenic strains is usually not a great cause for concern, unless your birds are weak or ill with something else, just like you wouldn't be concerned about getting the seasonal flu. However, some LPAI strains are capable of mutating under field conditions into highly pathenogenic types (HPAI), meaning they would change from something that is more difficult for chickens to catch into something that is easy for them to catch, as well as more severe in its effect! It is this possibility that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) works to prevent, and this is why you want to be informed about it, too. When you or your family handles your chickens, be sure to practice good biosecurity. (See how in the related questions below.)
HPAI has been detected four times in U.S. poultry: in 1924, 1983, 2004, and 2015. The 2004 outbreak was in Texas, and it was quickly eradicated... it hasn't been detected there since. No human illness resulted from any of these outbreaks. We hope the USDA will be as successful at containing the 2015 HPAI cases. What we do know about AI and backyard chickens is that “When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem,” and that “the key to protecting backyard poultry and people from bird flu is to protect them from industrial poultry and poultry products.” (Emphasis added.)
So... is avian flu something you should be informed about? Yes! Stressed about? No. You can read the latest updates about HPAI here. To find out how to maintain good biosecurity for your home flock, please read the related questions below for more information. You can also watch these YouTube videos to see additional tips and advice: