Have you ever become sick after being near a bird with mucus discharge – a parrot-like bird, dove, goose or wild bird – or having worked with chickens? Then you should consider psittacosis, an infectious disease, also known as parrot disease.
It is in fact a fairly elusive zoonosis and one that can pass from animals to humans. There are still fewer than fifty patients registered in the Netherlands annually, and it is very likely that the disease is not always recognised as such. However, being able to identify the disease is crucial in providing adequate treatment.
Infected birds are often less active, lose appetite and have watery eyes with mucus discharge. The bacteria leave the infected animal through mucus discharge, droppings and ocular fluid. Dried-up droppings and mucus can float through the air, like fine dust particles, and you can inhale them as you would any other fine particles. Infection enters the body through your lungs. It takes one to four weeks from the time of infection before you actually become sick. An untreated bird may remain infectious for several months.
As a rule, people suffer complaints such as shivers, fever, coughing, shortness of breath and severe headaches. The symptoms are very similar to flu, and the illness is often mild. But psittacosis is not caused by a virus, as is flu, but by a bacterium called Chlamydia psittaci. And the disease can develop into a lung infection.
Antibiotics are the usual treatment for bacterial infections, but not all antibiotics are effective against C. psittaci, which means that some treatments are ineffective. This is why it is important to know quickly the type of bacteria that is, or might be, infecting a patient.
Because of the seriousness of the disease in animals and humans and the fact that people may pick up the disease from birds, psittacosis is a notifiable disease, i.e. you are obliged to report it. This means that if the disease is detected in humans or animals, a doctor must report human infections to the Public Health Authorities (GGD in the Netherlands) and vets must notify the Animal Health Authorities (NVWA in the Netherlands) about cases in animals. The intention is to prevent more people and animals becoming sick.
Recent known outbreaks in the Netherlands only occurred among visitors of a bird show in Weurt in 2007 and members of staff at a bird rescue centre in Rotterdam in 2012. However, during the last ten years, the bacterium has also been reported at several chicken farms around the world, including in Belgium and France. And that means that the disease is also a potential threat to people working in the poultry sector.
To gain an insight into the spread of the disease among humans and animals as well as cross infections, Wageningen University & Research started the Plat4m-2Bt-psittacose website over two years ago. The platform gathers data on the occurrence of the disease in humans and animals, all in one place. 'We hope to be able to find the sources of the disease more easily and to fight the disease better,' says Hendrik-Jan Roest from WBVR. That is why parties from the human and animal health care sectors are working together on this. Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) is leading the research, while RIVM (The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and ZonMw (The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development) are financing it.
In addition, the Dutch Food and Welfare Authority (NVWA) has commissioned WBVR to test whether birds actually carry C. psittaci bacteria. This requires samples from the cloaca (the opening where droppings, moisture and eggs are ejected) or faeces.
What you can do
A general practitioner (GP) sees few patients with infectious diseases during consultation hours. So, what if you get flu-like complaints outside of the flu season and you have a pet bird? You should report those facts to your GP, even if you are not sure if your bird has been ill.
Finally, if you buy a bird, you should expect to get a healthy animal and good nutrition advice. It is not normal for the bird to receive medication in the shop or for the seller to give you or advise you to use medicine. 'You should not receive any medicine for a healthy bird,' says Hendrik-Jan Roest.