Last weekend more than 100 black vultures were found dead from avian influenza in the Sussex County township of Lafayette.

The discovery has sparked concern about the virus commonly known as bird flu, and how much of a threat it poses to people.

According to Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the director of communicable disease services for the New Jersey Health Department, it is definitely something we should be paying attention to.

He said avian influenza is not normally transmitted easily to humans but we know that flu is a virus that frequently mutates.

“If it changes enough so that people don’t really have any immunity to it and it happens to change in a way that’s more deadly to people it can cause a very deadly outbreak.”

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Public health officials watching bird flu closely

The Health Department is monitoring avian influenza.

“The concern is it is possible that it could further mutate in such a way that it might more easily spread to people, and might be more serious if it did so," Lifshitz said.

Dr. David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said right now this is not a huge concern but there is a "theoretical risk of avian influenza becoming more of a human influenza."

He said if avian influenza “does jump and starts propagating through people, and it would be a totally new flu virus for people, you run the risk of a pandemic. That would sound global alarm bells," he said.

If avian influenza moves into a poultry farm it will spread throughout the entire flock very quickly.

“Now you have thousands and thousands of transmission events, thousands and thousands of infected birds that are all allowing this virus the chance to potentially mutate.”

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Getting sick from infected birds

Lifshitz said avian influenza does pose a significant risk to birds, including chickens, but “there is no risk to people from eating chicken or other fowl that’s been cooked.”

He said if you come upon an injured or dead bird “you wouldn’t want to be picking it up and touching it and handling it with your bare hands because it could potentially be infected."

Cennimo suggests bird handlers wear gloves and wash their hands carefully.

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at

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