First Person in U.S. Tests Positive for Bird Flu as Largest Outbreak in Years Continues

Health + Wellness
Chickens at a farm in Colorado.
Chickens at a farm in Colorado. Jon Hatch / Digital First Media / Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

A highly infectious bird flu that has led to the deaths of millions of birds has been found in a U.S. human for the first time. 

A Colorado man who worked at a farm where poultry had been infected tested positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or the H5N1 flu, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced on Thursday.

“We want to reassure Coloradans that the risk to them is low,” CDPHE state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said in a statement. 

The man is under 40 years old and was directly exposed to infected poultry while working at a private farm in Montrose County. The man was an inmate at a state correctional facility in Delta County who was working at the farm as part of a pre-release program in which inmates work for private companies for a prevailing wage. He tested positive for H5N1 after taking a nasal swab, and the result was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Wednesday. He is now self-isolating and being treated with Tamiflu, and has experienced no symptoms other than fatigue. 

The current H5N1 outbreak, which the CDC has been tracking since late 2021, is the largest since 2014-2015, USA TODAY reported. It has been identified in domestic and farmed birds in 29 states and wild birds in 34 states. 

It is suspected to have killed more than 200 birds in an outbreak at a Chicago-area lake, NBC reported. It also claimed the lives of at least three bald eagles in Georgia. 

Beyond that, it has led to the deaths of more than 24 million domestic chickens, turkeys and other birds culled at farms to prevent its spread, USA TODAY reported, including the birds at the facility where the Colorado man contracted the virus.

In another incident reported by The Guardian Thursday, an Iowa farm called Rembrandt Enterprises killed 5.3 million chickens in March using a method called ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+), in which the barn is cut off from air and heated to temperatures of more than 104 degrees fahrenheit. 

“They cooked those birds alive,” one of the workers involved said, as The Guardian reported. 

The company has since faced criticism for its treatment of the animals and of its workers, who were fired after spending almost a month disposing of the bodies. 

The pandemic is an example of how factory farming encourages the spread of disease by keeping animals packed tightly together. Both the exposure of the Colorado man and the treatment of the Rembrandt workers demonstrate the vulnerability of the humans employed at these facilities. 

CDPHE did say that everyone working to dispose of infected birds at the Montrose County farm was provided with personal protective equipment. In general, it is rare for humans to contract bird flu, but being directly exposed to sick birds increases the risk. The only other human known to have contracted the virus during the current bird flu pandemic was a UK poultry farmer who tested positive in January, but never developed symptoms. 

The CDC advised that anyone working with poultry protect themselves by wearing gloves, a mask and goggles and washing their hands, USA TODAY reported. The agency said the disease could pass between people in close contact, but does not spread widely among human populations. 

“This case does not change the human risk assessment for the general public, which CDC considers to be low,” the CDC said in response to the Colorado infection, as USA TODAY reported. 

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