MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO)The Centers for Disease Control issued another warning Wednesday to doctors and health officials: be on the lookout for people infected with avian flu.

Minnesota health officials right now are monitoring poultry workers and others who might be exposed to infected birds. So far, no one has shown signs of getting sick.

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So, how can humans catch the bird flu? We talked to Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health.

“What’s interesting is that human influenza is spread via the respiratory route,” Ehresmann said. “With birds, the way that influenza is spread is actually fecal-oral.”

Humans can catch avian flu, but it’s generally when those people come into close contact with the feces of birds.

The World Health Organization reports 840 people have contracted avian flu since 2003, and 447 of them have died.

Most of the cases have been in Asia and Egypt. There has never been a case of H5N1 In the U.S.

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“Yes, theoretically it is possible,” Ehresmann said. “Is it very likely? No, because it’s a very limited number of people who would have that exposure.”

Humans cannot contract avian flu by eating any processed or cooked chicken, turkey or poultry product. But what can happen is the avian influenza virus could mutate.

Ehresmann says a theoretical possibility is that birds with avian flu are exposed to a human infected with influenza, creating an opportunity for the genes of those two viruses to connect and change.

That is what happened when millions of people were sickened with the swine — or pandemic — flu of 2009 – 2010. That influenza strain combined human, pig and bird elements.

As for the concern level about this most recent round of avian influenza mutation, Ehresmann says public health officials are monitoring the situation, but the public shouldn’t be worried.

“The fact that we have not seen any human transmission with H5N2 thus far I think is positive,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to continue monitoring, but in terms of an imminent threat, no, I’m not concerned about that.”

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Heather Brown