Residents of Birmingham, Alabama, have their feathers ruffled (pun intended) on account of a bacterial infection found in some of the local zoo's resident birds.
State health officials issued a notice Wednesday warning that any visitors to the Birmingham Zoo's aviary in the past 30 days may have been exposed to a psittacosis, which can spread from birds to humans.
During routine testing, several of the zoo's lorikeets were found to have the disease, which is a pneumonia-like illness that can cause fever, chills, headache, muscles aches, and a dry cough in humans, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is uncommon—typically fewer than 50 people get it each year, the CDC contends. But it can lead to complications like decreased lung function, heart valve infection, and hepatitis.
Those most at risk for infection include zoo handlers and caretakers (because they work closely with the birds), pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) release.
A person gets the disease by "inhaling dried secretions from infected birds," according to the CDC. Prompt treatment with antibiotics clears up most cases.
The good news, at least for now? No one on staff at the Birmingham Zoo has come down with any symptoms of the illness.
For folks concerned that this is the next bird flu, it’s not worth the alarm, as the virus responsible for avian flu is much more serious, compared to the bacterial psittacosis (Also, it’s worth noting that the H7N9 avian virus has not been detected in the United States—neither in humans nor birds.) When it comes to bird flu, “most patients have had severe respiratory illness, with about one-third resulting in death,” says the CDC. And while fatal cases of psittacosis have been reported, it’s not the norm.
For those planning on visiting the zoo, there shouldn’t be any concern, as the lorikeet aviary is closed and will remain so until the infected birds are treated, the exhibit is disinfected, and further laboratory tests are completed, the ADPH notes.
“We routinely conduct health exams on the Zoo’s animals so that we can be as proactive as possible about detecting the presence of disease among the Zoo’s animals. After a lorikeet presented symptoms and tested positive, the exhibit was closed so the entire collection could be tested and treated as needed,” says Stephanie McCain, head veterinarian at the Birmingham Zoo, in a press release e-mailed to Health.
“The Veterinary staff is taking all measures to ensure the safety and health of the lorikeet collection and will continue to monitor any circumstances that may affect the Zoo’s animal collection or the guests,” McCain added.