What is psittacosis, the parrot disease that is transmitted to humans. WHO: “He killed 5 people”

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What is psittacosis, the parrot disease that is transmitted to humans. WHO: “He killed 5 people”

Psittacosis, also known as “parrot fever” or ornithosis, is a respiratory infection caused by Chlamydophila psittaci, a bacterium that causes avian chlamydiosis in some birds but which can also be transmitted to humans, leading to the development of dangerous pneumonia . Here are the first symptoms, how to recognize the infection and what you need to know about the zoonotic disease that has caused 5 victims in Europe.

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Psittacosis is a disease transmitted to humans by some birds, mainly parrots, parakeets or lovebirds carriers of the C. psittaci bacterium: it generally causes mild symptoms, but in some cases it can lead to the development of dangerous pneumonia

Psittacosis, also known as parrot disease or ornithosis , is a respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydophila psittaci , a species that causes avian chlamydiosis in some birds (mainly parrots, parakeets and lovebirds) but can also infect humans, leading to the development of serious and life-threatening pneumonia.

The recent report from the World Health Organization, which reported the deaths of five people and an increase in cases of psittacosis in Europe between the end of 2023 and the first months of 2024, has reignited attention on this disease which, in most some cases are linked to exposure to wild or domestic birds. The bacterium that causes psittacosis is in fact transmitted through inhalation of dust from dried feathers or excrement or through contact with respiratory secretions and wounds inflicted by infected birds. Here are the first symptoms, how to recognize the infection and what you need to know about this zoonotic disease.

What is psittacosis and how is it transmitted

Psittacosis (also called “ parrot fever” or ornithosis ) is a respiratory disease caused by Chlamydia psittaci , a Gram-negative bacterium that mainly infects parrots, such as macaws, cockatiels, budgies and lovebirds, but also pigeons, sparrows, ducks, chickens, turkeys, seagulls and many other bird species . Specifically, we talk about psittacosis when the bacterium is transmitted to humans from any species of birds belonging to the Psittacidae family and ornithosis when the infection is contracted from other birds.

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In birds, Chlamydia psittaci causes an avian chlamydiosis that often does not manifest itself with signs of disease, but both sick birds and those with apparently asymptomatic infections can spread the bacterium. The infection is transmitted to humans mainly through inhalation of dust from dried feathers or excrement or through contact with respiratory secretions and wounds inflicted by infected birds.

For this reason, cases of psittacosis or ornithosis occur more frequently in those who work with pet birds or who handle poultry , veterinarians, pet bird owners, and people who work in areas where the infectious disease is widespread in the population of native birds. Person-to-person transmission is possible but rare.

What are the symptoms of psittacosis

Psittacosis (ornithosis) is a zoonotic disease (transmitted from animals to humans) that generally causes mild symptoms , similar to those of many other respiratory infections, but which can lead to the development of severe, life-threatening pneumonia . The first symptoms of the infection appear after an incubation period which can vary from 4 days to 5 weeks (generally appearing within 5-14 days of infection ) and include:

  • high fever
  • heachache
  • muscle pain
  • dry cough

Other symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath , chills, and photophobia often associated with severe headaches. Less frequent are diarrhea, inflammation of the back of the throat (pharyngitis) and confusion. In some cases, the so-called Horder spots, pinkish skin rashes (exanthem) on the face, may appear.

The most serious forms can manifest themselves with atypical pneumonia (all those forms of pneumonia caused by microorganisms less frequently associated with this pathology) which can lead to hospitalization and in some cases be fatal . Other complications of the infection may include inflammation of the heart (endocarditis and myocarditis), liver disease (icteric hepatitis) and neurological diseases (such as encephalitis and meningitis). The severity of the disease can vary based on age, the presence of pre-existing health conditions and the extent of the infectious process.

The diagnosis of psittacosis is typically suspected in patients with recent exposure to birds and is initially based on symptoms, but is usually confirmed by antibody tests in the blood , or by molecular testing (PCR).

How is psittacosis treated?

The treatment of psittacosis usually involves the administration of antibiotics, such as tetracyclines to be taken orally for at least 10 days.

Recovery – explain the MSD infectious disease specialists – can take place after a long time, especially in serious cases. The mortality rate can reach 30% in individuals with severe untreated psittacosis, however with adequate treatment most individuals recover .” Data indicate that, when treated, psittacosis rarely progresses to serious illness and causes death ( less than 1 in 100 cases ).

WHO: “Increasing cases, 5 deaths in Europe”

In Europe, there are at least five countries ( Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden ) that have reported an increase in cases of psittacosis between the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024, in most cases linked to exposure to wild or domestic birds. In Denmark and the Netherlands, 5 deaths related to the disease also occurred.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced this in a report on psittacosis in Europe, based on data from the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), the rapid warning and response system active in the European Union.

In Austria, specifically, 18 cases have been confirmed since the end of 2023 (14 cases in 2023 and another 4 since the beginning of 2024), 23 in Denmark (15 with pneumonia and 4 deaths), 19 in Germany (14 in 2023 and 5 more since the beginning of 2024), 39 in Sweden (26 at the end of 2023 and 13 more since the beginning of 2024) and 21 in the Netherlands (1 death). “ Concerned countries have implemented epidemiological investigations to identify potential exposures and clusters of cases ” underlined the WHO, indicating that “ the measures implemented include the analysis of samples of wild birds subjected to avian influenza tests to verify the prevalence of C. psittaci among wild birds ”.

Despite the situation, the WHO has specified that it assesses the risk represented by this increase in cases as “low” , underlining the need for ” further investigations to determine whether it is a real increase in cases or an increase due to diagnostic techniques”. or more sensitive surveillance ”.

Although birds carrying this disease can cross international borders, there is currently no indication that this disease is being spread by humans nationally or internationally , ” added the UN body. Generally, people do not spread the bacteria that causes psittacosis to other people, so there is a low chance of further human-to-human transmission of the disease . If diagnosed correctly, this pathogen is treatable with antibiotics .”

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