Frequently Asked Questions - Avian Influenza
American Zoo and Aquarium Association
This fact sheet is provided to answer frequently asked questions about the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, also referred to as bird flu. Most of the information about avian influenza is from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
AZA’s Animal Health Committee has developed detailed guidelines for avian flu prevention and control within AZA-accredited facilities. The AZA Board of Directors approved the guidelines on 16 November 2005.
1) What is avian influenza?
Avian influenza - commonly called “bird flu” - is an infection caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally in birds. Wild birds can carry the viruses, but usually do not get sick from them, but some domesticated birds, such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys, can become infected, often fatally. One strain of avian influenza, H5N1, is endemic in much of Asia and has recently spread into Europe. Avian H5N1 infections have killed poultry and other birds in a number of countries.
2) Have any of the birds in AZA zoos and aquariums become infected with avian influenza?
To date, there have been no known cases of H5N1 anywhere in North America. At the AZA-accredited institutions with birds, animal care experts already have a regular routine to carefully monitor the health of their birds, as well as the other animals. Experts at AZA zoos and aquariums know these animals better than anyone else, and are attuned to the slightest behavior change that may indicate that an animal is ill.
3) What is AZA doing to minimize the risk for the animals in accredited zoos and aquariums?
Some of the country’s top animal health experts are members of AZA’s Animal Health Committee, which created detailed guidelines to help members develop protocols specific to their zoo or aquarium’s bird collection that will help prevent and, if needed, contain avian influenza. For example, guidelines recommend that, in addition to continuing standard biosecurity measures, zoos and aquariums should:
- prohibit using uncooked poultry as animal feed;
- refrain from incubating eggs from free-ranging waterfowl;
- disinfect enrichment items, such as bird toys, before giving them to birds
*Animal care is the first priority for AZA-accredited institutions. In addition to the guidelines AZA has just released on avian influenza, our accreditation guidelines have long required zoos and aquariums to perform regular health checks of their animals.
4) What is AZA doing to minimize the risk for visitors who visit accredited zoos and aquariums?
It’s important to note that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the H5N1 avian influenza does not spread easily from birds to humans. In addition, there are no known cases of H5N1 avian influenza anywhere in North America.
If H5N1 were to be found in the U.S. or Canada, recommended guidelines would include not allowing education program animals off zoo grounds to visit schools and discontinuing behind-the-scenes tours of animal food preparation and storage areas, as well as any area where birds are housed.
5) Can people become infected with avian influenza?
Although it is possible for people to become infected with avian influenza, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the virus does not spread easily from animals to humans. There have been confirmed cases of human infection in Asia, but those occurred in association with virus outbreaks in poultry, usually among people who live and work in close quarters with the animals.
6) What are AZA institutions doing to minimize the risk to employees that work with birds?
Employee safety is an integral part of animal care at all AZA zoos and aquariums. To protect AZA animal care experts who work with birds, the guidelines recommend that employees wear outerwear supplied and laundered through the zoo, and that employees disinfect their shoes with a footbath when entering and leaving bird areas.
There is little risk of avian influenza occurrence for employees that work with birds; however, we are always looking for methods to improve our best practices.
7) Will AZA zoos and aquariums play a roll in the prevention and monitoring of avian influenza in the US and Canada?
AZA-accredited institutions around the U.S. and Canada are poised to proactively help monitor and track this disease if it becomes an emerging public health concern. In fact, AZA has long been in the forefront of conducting research and contributing information to help local, state and federal public health officials address emerging public health concerns.
For example, AZA worked closely with officials to monitor and track the West Nile Virus as it migrated across the country. Our expertise in animal care and animal health continues to be a valuable resource for public health officials focusing on preparedness for avian influenza.
8) Should visitors be concerned about visiting AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums?
There is little chance of visitors contracting avian flu from an affected zoo or aquarium animal because in most cases, visitors are separated from the birds by windows or by a safe distance. This prevents visitors from coming into direct contact with the birds or their bodily discharge (feces, saliva and nasal discharges).
9) If a bird flu occurrence happens in the U.S., will AZA zoos and aquariums close?
Animal care is the first priority at AZA-accredited institutions. The guidelines recommended by AZA are designed to protect the health of animals, staff and visitors. In developing the guidelines, we have evaluated all the options and selected the best courses of action based on the tactics that most effectively address the different contingencies. Individual members must make the best decision on what measures are most effective for their own zoo or aquarium. Although the chance of an occurrence is remote, we believe it is important to be prepared.
10) Will you be vaccinating birds and other animals to protect them?
Vaccination should be considered when there is a substantial threat of an outbreak in the region of a zoo.
11) Will zoos and aquariums have to euthanize bird collections to protect public health?
All of our efforts currently are to protect our birds from exposure, and we have preventative measures in place in part to keep us from having to euthanize any animal. Also, under federal law we are required to do everything in our power to protect any endangered species in our care.