what is bird-borne disease and what experts say

WHO raises the alert level on psittacosis, a respiratory disease transmitted to humans by birds, after recording an increase in the number of cases in some EU countries, in which five deaths were also recorded. The infection, also known as ornithosis or “parrot fever”, is caused by a bacterium widespread among birds, which in cases of prolonged exposure to the secretions of infected specimens can be transmitted to humans causing serious pneumonia.

What is psittacosis

The alert from the World Health Organization came after reports received in February this year from Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, regarding the growth of psittacosis infections recorded in 2023 and early 2024, with a increase “particularly marked from November-December 2023”. Among the cases detected, five victims caused by the infection were also confirmed (here is more information on what swine fever is and the risks for humans).

As underlined by the WHO, for the most part these were episodes caused by repeated proximity to wild or domestic birds and the risk of disease spread remains low.

Psittacosis, in fact, is caused by the bacterium Chlamydophila psittaci associated with more than 450 species of birds, but the zoonosis is linked in particular to companion birds and in closer contact with humans, such as parrots, finches, canaries and pigeons.

Cases of infection mostly occur in individuals who own these animals, who work with poultry or in veterinary practices, exposed toinhalation of particles suspended in the air coming from respiratory secretions, dried feces or feather dust.

Generally, psittacosis is a mild disease, with symptoms such as fever and chills, headache, muscle pain and dry cough. Most people begin to develop signs and symptoms within 5 to 14 days of contracting the bacteria. With appropriate and timely antibiotic treatment, the respiratory infection rarely turns into severe pneumonia, which in less than 1 case in 100 it can lead to the patient’s death.

The opinion of the experts

The virologist from the State University of Milan, Fabrizio Pregliascowelcomed the alert launched by the WHO on the increase in human cases of psittacosis in the EU, “because the timely communication of these risks can help us structure interventions that are as anticipatory as possible of a possible new infectious emergency”, but underlines that there is no need to give in to alarmism.

“We live in an ecosystem made up of continuous interactions between viruses, bacteria, animals and humans,” Pregliasco explained to Adnkronos, underlining the need for a ‘One Health’ approach which requires “the responsibility and attention of all and above all of the institutions, called to carry out increasingly intense and numerous controls within a complex and extensive international network which must be financed, so that it can guarantee adequate sensitivity” to detect future emergencies in time, and fed by “constant reports from collect and share quickly”.

Same level of attention highlighted by Massimo Andreoniscientific director of the Italian Society of Infectious and Tropical Diseases (Simit) for “those who own small captive birds at home, therefore observe them if they are sick and above all don’t touch them. Just as they shouldn’t be touched if we see sick birds in parks or on the street.”

However, it is a rare disease in our latitudes but it is transmitted via the respiratory route, however contact of the hands with the bird is a risk not to be taken” highlighted the infectious disease specialist, concluding that “it can be a fatal disease in some cases because it triggers serious pneumonia, but there they are antibiotics to intervene.”

For the colleague Matteo Bassettidirector of infectious diseases at the San Martino polyclinic hospital in Genoa, psittacosis in the EU “you shouldn’t worryand absolutely also because there have been 5 deaths in different countries.

If one goes to Piazza del Duomo and stands near the pigeons and feeds them, nothing happens and the risk is very low – explained the expert toAdnkronos – Continuous contact with secretions and excrement is needed. There is a WHO alert and awareness is needed, but no alarm” (here we reported the recent dengue infections in Italy, explaining how to recognize it).