It is a form of the flu (influenza) virus that usually only infects birds and sometimes infects pig.
There are many different strains of the avian flu. Some of those strains only cause mild symptoms in birds. Other strains, including some of the H5 strains, are more dangerous – they spread quickly, cause more severe symptoms, and are almost always fatal to the birds.
An estimated 117 people have contracted the H5N1 strain of the flu, and about half of them have died. In an effort to keep the flu from spreading, more than 150 million birds in those countries have been destroyed. The World Health Organization (WHO) is estimating that it will take at least 2 years to contain this outbreak of the bird flu.
Over the past couple of years experts have recorded and confirmed outbreaks if H5N1 among birds in these countries: Cambodia, China, Croatia, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.
The strain of flu virus that has spread in Asia and Eastern Europe has not been found in birds – or humans – in the United States. There’s a very low risk that people in the United States will get infected with avian flu unless there’s a global outbreak.
But this strain of the virus has been around since 1997. And the longer it lingers, spreading among birds in Asia, the more opportunities there are for the virus to infect people. The more people that are infected with the virus, the more opportunities the virus will have to mutate into a form that could spread from person to person. That could lead to a pandemic.
As a precaution, the United States is not importing any birds from countries that have reported outbreaks of the bird flu.
Researchers think that migrating birds, like ducks and geese, can carry and spread the virus to other birds but generally don’t get sick from it. Bird flu can sicken domesticated birds, like chickens and turkeys, and it kills them.
A bird can get the bird flu from another bird by coming into close contact with its infected feces, secretions, or saliva, or surfaces, dirt, or cages that have been contaminated by them. Researchers think live bird markets, where birds are kept in close quarters, are places where the virus has rapidly spread. The virus also can spread from farm to farm if birds’ infected feces and saliva get on farming equipment.
Experts believe that the people who where infected by the bird flu had direct contact with infected poultry. They lived in rural areas where many families have small household poultry flocks, and slaughter, de-feather, and butcher poultry themselves. Poultry also roam freely in some of those areas where there are then many opportunities to be exposed to their infected feces.
It’s unlikely that a person who gets infected with this strain of avian flu would spread it to other people. All humans cases of bird flu so far have happened because people came into close contact with infected birds.
The symptoms of bird flu in people tend to be similar to the typical flu: fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches. But this flu also can lead to eye infections, pneumonia, and severe coughing and breathing problems.
If clusters of people start showing symptoms of the flu around the same time, in the same place, in a country where it’s known that the virus is spreading, it would signal that the virus has mutated and is spreading from person to person. Doctors and public health officials would try to find out how the people got sick, and use that information to try to track and stop the disease from spreading.
Officials in Japan, Korea, and Malaysia have announced that their local outbreaks have been controlled, and that there’s no more of the virus there.
Even so, the WHO has started stockpiling antiviral medication and created an emergency plan in case there is a pandemic. The agency is proving guidance for all nations to do the same and is closely monitoring countries where there have been outbreaks, watching for further cases and any possible mutations.
It’s safe to eat properly cooked chicken, turkey, and any other poultry in the United States. But do not eat raw (uncooked) or undercooked poultry or poultry products. When you’re cooking separate raw meat from cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Don’t use the same cutting boards, knives, or utensils on uncooked meats and other foods. Heat can destroy flu virus, so you should cook poultry until the temperature of the meat reaches at least 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius).
If you plan to travel to a country where there has been an outbreak, avoid any contact with chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, turkeys, quail, or any wild birds. Stay away from live bird markets, local poultry farms, or any settings where there might be infected poultry. Avoid touching surfaces that could have been contaminated by bird saliva, feces, or urine. Look to agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for travel advisories.
At this point, if you live in a country where there’s not a bird flu outbreak, there aren’t any special precautions you need to take. But in general, hand washing keeps viruses and other contagious illnesses from spreading. No matter where you live or how healthy you are, be sure to frequently and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, particularly after going to the bathroom and before preparing meals and eating, and after taking care of a sick person.
No. There is no vaccine currently available for the avian flu, although there is one under development. However, experts stress that the strains of common flu virus that circle the globe each year are much more likely to pose a threat to human health during flu season. And in this case protection is available for that. So you may want to think about getting a flu shot for yourself to help you stay well during the flu season, which runs from November to April, particularly if you are considered to be in a high-risk group. Pregnant women, babies from 6 to 23 months old, anyone who lives with or cares for infants under 6 months old, and people with certain chronic medical conditions are all considered high risk.
Doctors hope that antiviral medications will keep the flu from spreading, if it mutates and becomes contagious to humans. These medications can’t cure the bird flu, but they can make the symptoms less severe. Still, flu viruses can become resistant to these drugs, so they may not always work. More studies are underway to determine how effective these medications are.