Health officials are investigating a poultry plant in New Market, Virginia, after 50 employees were recently sickened by Psittacosis, a rare illness humans typically contract through infected birds.
The infectious disease, "caused by infection of the respiratory tract (throat, windpipe, and lungs) with Chlamydia psittaci,” most commonly affects those who care or clean up after infected birds, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Employees were first infected at the plant in late August, Brad Respess, president and CEO of Tip Top Poultry, which owns New Market Poultry, told Fox News Thursday.
“We’ve taken a ton of caution to make sure our people are healthy and safe. We’re a small, family-owned business, so they’re like our family,” Respess said, adding the company is working closely with the Virginia Department of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other health entities to “understand what happened.”
The workers at New Market Poultry were likely infected by “breathing in bacteria that is shed in the birds’ droppings,” health officials told WHSV-News.
When birds’ secretions dry, “small dust particles (including the bacteria) can become airborne. The most common way someone gets infected is by breathing in the dust from these dried secretions," the CDC explained.
Laura Kornegay, health director for the Central Shenandoah Health District, told WHSV-News “this bacteria is quite unusual for commercial poultry to be a source of the infection," adding the "bacteria is more often associated with pet birds like parakeets."
Respess said he's also been told it’s "very rare" and likely a "one-time occurance."
“There’s some speculation that one flock of chickens came through with it,” he added, noting the plant has since been cleaned and officials have collected environmental samples to better investigate the source of the bacteria.
Common symptoms of a Psittacosis infection include headache, fever and chills, as well as a dry cough and muscle aches, according to the CDC, which noted it can also cause pneumonia. It's not usually spread from person to person.
A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health did not immediately return Fox News’ request for comment on Thursday.