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Bird flu threat: Should you eat chicken, eggs? Here’s what experts say

As reports pour in that several birds have died in Jammu region, there is a general scare among people in J&K of avian influenza which has kept many away from consuming chicken and eggs.

Across India, at least six states — Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat — have so far confirmed the presence of bird flu resulting in the death of hundreds of migratory birds, ducks and crows.

Avian influenza occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species.

Not all avian influenza viruses cause disease in humans. However, some can infect humans and cause severe disease. The most well-known of these are avian influenza H5N1 viruses which circulate in poultry. There is some risk of transmission of avian influenza for those handling eggs, chicken and other poultry birds if not handled properly with gloves and other safety measures, health experts have warned.

“As far as human consumption is concerned, care has to be taken to have only full-boiled eggs as even an omelette or half fried or half-boiled egg, if infected, can carry a health risk. Generally, the Indian style of cooking chicken makes its consumption safe,” says K Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI).

Avian influenza viruses affect the birds in their intestines and respiratory tract. Some of these viruses can sicken and even kill certain domesticated bird species, including chickens, ducks and turkeys.

Infection of poultry with LPAI viruses may cause no disease or mild illness and may only cause mild signs (such as ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production) and may not be detected. Infection of poultry with HPAI viruses can cause severe disease with high mortality.

“It is safe to eat properly prepared and cooked poultry and game birds,” a statement on the WHO website reads. The virus is said to be heat sensitive; hence, cooking your food in at least 70 degrees Celsius (normal cooking temperature) can kill the virus in your food. The organisation further recommends preparing chicken, egg, etc., following complete hygiene practice.

“A large number of human infections with the H5N1 virus have been linked to the home slaughter and subsequent handling of diseased or dead birds prior to cooking. These practices represent the highest risk of human infection and are the most important to avoid,” WHO states.

An important precaution is that no poultry product from flocks with the disease should enter the food chain. In areas where there is no avian influenza outbreak in poultry, there is no risk that consumers will be exposed to the virus via the handling or consumption of poultry or poultry products.

Cooking of poultry (e.g. chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and guinea-fowl) at or above 70° Celsius throughout the product, so that absolutely no meat remains raw and red, is a safe measure to kill the H5N1 virus in areas with outbreaks in poultry, FAO/WHO states. This ensures that there is no active virus remaining if the live bird has been infected and has mistakenly entered the food chain. To date, there is no epidemiological evidence that people have become infected after eating contaminated poultry meat that has been properly cooked.