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The First Recorded Human Case of Bird Flu in US Seen in Prison Inmate

  • A bird flu outbreak that’s resulted in the killing of millions of birds has resulted in human infection.
  • A prison inmate working on a farm was the first US citizen to contract the virus. 
  • But, the CDC maintains that human risk is still low despite the infection.

A prison inmate has tested positive for the bird flu — marking the first human case in the US.

The virus outbreak is highly contagious to birds — so much so that almost 27 million chickens and turkeys have been killed en masse since January 2022 to halt the spread — but the infection risk among humans remains relatively low.

The man was exposed to the H5N1 virus as he worked on a Colorado farm culling — or slaughtering — birds suspected to have had the virus, NBC News reported

The outlet reported that the man was working at a Montrose County farm while taking part in a pre-release employment program. While the other inmates in the program have tested negative, they are still being monitored.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that the man’s only symptom was fatigue and that it has since cleared up after taking an influenza antiviral drug known as oseltamivir  — or Tamiflu. They identified him as “younger than 40” but provided no additional information on his identity.

The department says all birds in the flock were euthanized and maintains that all inmates on the farm were given personal protective equipment.

“We want to reassure Coloradans that the risk to them is low,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist with the department. “I am grateful for the seamless collaboration between CDC, Department of Corrections, Department of Agriculture, and CDPHE, as we continue to monitor this virus and protect all Coloradans.”

“CDC has tracked the health of more than 2,500 people with exposures to H5N1 virus-infected birds and this is the only case that has been found to date. Other people involved in the culling operation in Colorado have tested negative for H5 virus infection, but they are being retested out of an abundance of caution,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement Thursday.

He was the second human on record to test positive. The first was in 2021 in the United Kingdom, according to The World Health Organization.

However, the CDC maintains that human risk is still low despite this one infection in the US. 

“More than 880 human infections with earlier H5N1 viruses have been reported since 2003 worldwide, however, the predominant H5N1 viruses now circulating among birds globally are different from earlier H5N1 viruses,” the Center added in their statement.

The outbreak has hit more than thirty states and has resulted in an increase in egg prices as the avian influenza strain continues to kill birds across the US, Insider previously reported. The mortality rate sits at 90% for those birds that catch it.

The outbreak is hitting the US the hardest it has in seven years, the Guardian reported.

One egg factory, Rembrandt Enterprises, the Guardian reported, roasted more than 5 million chickens to contain the virus when just one tested positive for the virus. After burying the chickens in pits, 250 of the workers were laid off, with just a few core members remaining.

The factory used a method called ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+) to kill the birds. It requires taking away air and then blasting the heat to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“They cooked those birds alive,” a Rembrandt worker told the Guardian.

Animal rights groups such as Animal Outlook have criticized culling as being cruel. 

“We can now see this widespread inherent cruelty for what it really is, demand accountability under the law, and remove our support from this industry by refusing to buy animal products,” the organization’s website says.

The CDC says that cooking poultry and eggs to an internal temperature of 165˚F kills off H5N1 viruses.

The CDC, Colorado’s health department, and Animal Outlook did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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