Psittacosis

What is Psittacosis?

Psittacosis is an infectious disease in humans that has mild, non-specific flu-like symptoms.

Psittacosis refers to any infection or disease caused by Chlamydia psittaci, one of several micro-organisms in the genus Chlamydia.

This disease can be transmitted from infected birds to humans.

Other names for psittacosis:

  • Parrot disease
  • ornithosis
  • chlamydiosis

Infection in Birds

Chlamydia psittaci infects wild and domestic birds and poultry.

Birds which contract the infection include:

  • parrots
  • canaries
  • pigeons
  • chickens
  • ducks
  • turkeys

The time between exposure to Chlamydia psittaci and the onset of illness in caged birds ranges from three days to several weeks.

Sick birds show signs of:

  • Sleepiness
  • Shivering
  • Weight loss
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Diarrhoea

Birds can have a latent infection. That means they appear healthy and do not currently show any symptoms but could develop symptoms later.

These infected birds carrying the Chlamydia psittaci bacteria may shed the organism intermittently or sometimes continuously for weeks or months.

Stress may cause birds with a latent infection to shed the bacteria. Stress is associated with:

  • nutritional deficiencies
  • overcrowding
  • breeding
  • egg laying
  • prolonged transport

When shedding occurs, the infected birds excrete the bacteria in the faeces and nasal discharges and can remain infective for several months.

How Do Birds Pass on the Infection to Humans?

Humans can become infected with Chlamydia psittaci by breathing in the organism when the urine, respiratory secretion, or dried faeces of infected birds is dispersed in the air as very fine droplets or dust particles.

Other sources of exposure include:

  • mouth-to-beak contact
  • a bite from an infected bird
  • handling the plumage and tissues of infected birds

Infection in People

Can Humans Transmit the Infection to Other Humans?

Person-to-person transmission of the disease is rare. It may occur when a person is exposed to infectious droplets from another person experiencing sudden, very forceful coughing during the acute illness.

What are the Signs of Infection among Humans?

When a person breathes in Chlamydia psittaci bacteria, the lungs' defence mechanisms attempt to neutralise them.

The bacteria that avoid this defence start an infection that varies in severity from a mild flu-like illness to severe pneumonia. Generally, the signs and symptoms appear within four to 15 days after exposure.

These include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Muscle and chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Abnormal intolerance to light

Psittacosis is primarily a lung disease but it can involve several organs.

Some reports show that inflammation of the liver, lining of the heart cavity, the heart muscle, and the brain can occur.

The course of the disease is variable and it can result in death. However, fatal cases are very rare.

In mild cases, fever may continue for three weeks or more.

Treatment and Control

How is Psittacosis Recognised and Treated?

For accurate diagnosis of psittacosis, a doctor must know that the person has been exposed to birds and that the suspected birds are infected with Chlamydia psittaci.

Laboratory examinations can identify the organism and detect the signs of infection.

Patients who develop psittacosis require treatment with specific drugs. The disease is very responsive to tetracycline but is resistant to penicillin.

What Occupations are at Risk?

Psittacosis is an occupational health hazard for many people whose work brings them into contact with birds. These include:

  • Bird fanciers
  • Pigeon fanciers
  • Poultry production workers
  • Poultry processing workers
  • Pet shop employees
  • Quarantine facilities employees
  • Veterinary clinics employees
  • Diagnostic laboratories employees
  • Racing pigeons keepers
  • Public health inspectors
  • Exotic and domestic bird breeders
  • Bird dealers

How Can We Control Psittacosis?

  • Preventative measures include feeding birds properly, avoiding overcrowding, and adequate ventilation systems.
  • Clean cages are also important.
  • To control the infection in pet birds and domestic poultry, it is necessary to add the antibiotic (e.g. chlorotetracycline) to their feed. However, the owner or person in charge should contact a veterinary surgeon for any treatment and subsequent testing that may be required.
  • Workers should know the risk of routinely mixing antibiotics into animal feed. In such situations, the concern is that antibiotic resistant bacteria develop in workers who come into contact with the animals or their feed. This resistance makes the traditional diseases more difficult to treat and control.
  • Workers should keep infected birds in isolation and ensure these places are properly ventilated.
  • All persons involved with the care of any birds should wear gloves and masks, and avoid dry sweeping, brushing or vacuuming when cleaning cages.
  • Waste material should be removed frequently from the cage after moistening the material with a disinfectant.
  • Chlamydia psittaci is susceptible to such disinfectants as:
    - quaternary ammonium compounds
    - isopropyl alcohol
    - 70% ethanol
    - glutaraldehyde
    - formaldehyde
    - household bleach (diluted to 1% sodium hypochlorite)

Many disinfectants are respiratory irritants and should be used with appropriate precautions in a well ventilated area.

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