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‘Parrot fever’ outbreak in Europe has led to deaths of five people

A deadly outbreak of psittacosis, a bacterial infection also known as parrot fever, has affected people living in several European countries, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The outbreak was initially noted in 2023 and has continued through the start of this year. The deaths of five people have been reported.

Parrot fever is caused by bacteria in the Chlamydia family that is found in a variety of wild and pet birds and poultry. Infected birds don’t always seem sick, but they shed the bacteria when they breathe or poop.

Humans commonly catch parrot fever by breathing in the dust from an infected bird’s secretions, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People can also get sick if a bird bites them or through beak-to-mouth contact. The disease is not spread through eating infected animals.

Human-to-human transmission is possible but rare, studies show. In most of the recent cases, people had been exposed to domesticated or wild birds that were infected, WHO said.

Most people who get parrot fever have a mild illness that begins five to 14 days after exposure to a sick bird and can include a headache, muscle pain, a dry cough, fever and chills. Antibiotics can treat the infection, and it’s rarely fatal for humans.

Austria, which typically sees two cases of this disease each year, reported 14 confirmed cases in 2023 and four more this year, as of March 4. The cases are unrelated, and none of the individuals reported traveling abroad or coming into contact with wild birds.

Denmark typically sees 15 to 30 human cases every year, most stemming from exposure to pet birds or hobby birds like racing pigeons.

It has 23 confirmed cases with this outbreak as of February 27, but public health officials there suspect that the case count is actually much higher, WHO said.

Of those Danish cases, 17 people have been hospitalized; 15 had pneumonia, and four have died.

At least one person in Denmark got parrot fever from a pet bird. Of the 15 other cases with available exposure information, 12 said they had contact with wild birds primarily through bird feeders. In three of the cases, the patients had no history of contact with birds of any kind.

Germany had 14 confirmed cases of parrot fever in 2023. There have been another five this year. Almost all of the people had pneumonia, and 16 have been hospitalized.

Of the 19 cases in Germany, five reported exposure to sick pet birds or chickens.

Sweden has been seeing an increase in the number of parrot fever cases since 2017.

It reported an unusually high number of cases in late November and early December, with 26. There have been 13 cases this year, which is fewer than the number reported for the same time period in the past five years.

The Netherlands has also seen an increase in cases, with 21 from late December through February 29, twice as many cases as the same period in previous years, WHO said. Typically, that country has about nine cases a year.

Everyone in the recent Dutch cases has been hospitalized, and one person has died. Eight reported no contact with birds, seven had contact with droppings from domestic birds, and six had contact with wild bird droppings.

WHO said it will continue to monitor the outbreak, along with the affected countries.

The organization is encouraging doctors to be on the lookout for the infection and warning owners of pet birds and workers who have frequent contact with birds to use good hand hygiene.

WHO says people who have pet birds should be sure to keep cages clean and to avoid overcrowding.

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