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What is bird flu?
Bird flu is an infection caused by a certain kind of
influenza virus. Although there are many kinds of bird
flu, the kind that now concerns health workers is the H5N1 bird flu virus. This
virus is found in wild birds. Most of the time, wild
birds don't get sick from the virus. But wild birds can easily pass the virus
to birds that are being raised for food, such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys.
The virus can cause them to get very sick.
Usually bird flu virus
is not passed from birds to people. But since 1997, some people have become
sick with this serious, deadly kind of bird flu. Most of these infections have
been in Asian countries among people who have had close contact with birds
raised on farms. But experts believe that the virus may eventually spread to
all parts of the world. So far, no cases of H5N1 bird flu in humans have been
found in Canada or the United States.
What causes bird flu?
Bird flu is caused by a virus. After a wild bird
infects a farm-raised bird, the virus can easily and quickly spread among
hundreds or thousands of birds. Sick birds must then be killed to stop the
virus from spreading.
People who come into contact with sick
chickens, ducks, or turkeys are more likely to get the virus. Bird flu virus
can be passed through bird droppings and saliva on surfaces
such as cages, tractors, and other farm equipment.
don't need to worry about getting sick with bird flu virus. You cannot get bird
flu from eating fully cooked chicken, turkey, or duck, because heat kills the
Why are people so worried about bird flu?
In a few cases, experts think that bird flu was passed
from one person to another person, not from a bird to a person. Because viruses
can change quickly (mutate), experts worry that bird flu will one day be passed
easily from person to person. This is a scary possibility, because the H5N1
bird flu virus can make people sicker than other kinds of flu viruses. Even
though only a few hundred people are known to have been sick with bird flu,
more than half of them have died.
Experts also worry because the
H5N1 bird flu virus is so different from other flu viruses that our bodies do
immunity against it. Not having immunity means that our bodies
have a hard time fighting the virus. It also means that anyone, including those
who are otherwise very healthy, can get seriously ill if he or she gets this
kind of bird flu.
What are the symptoms?
At first, the symptoms of
bird flu can be the same as common flu symptoms, such
Bird flu may also cause an eye infection (conjunctivitis).
But bird flu can quickly
acute respiratory distress syndrome, a serious lung
problem that can be deadly. For the people who die from bird flu, the average
length of time from the start of symptoms until death is 9 to 10 days.1
Call your doctor right away if you have traveled
somewhere or live in an area where there is bird flu and you have a fever and a
hard time breathing.
How is bird flu diagnosed and treated?
If your doctor thinks that you may have bird flu,
he or she will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your symptoms and
past health. Your doctor will also ask where you live, where you have traveled
recently, and if you have been near any birds. Then your doctor may order blood
tests, nasal swabs, or other tests, such as
X-rays, to help find out what is making you
Some questions your doctor might ask are:
How bird flu is treated depends on what the virus is doing
to your body. In some cases, antiviral medicines may help you feel better. But
experts are concerned that certain antiviral medicines may not work against
bird flu. Viruses become
resistant when they change over time, and then the
medicines that worked in the past no longer work well.
If you have
bird flu, you will stay in a private hospital room (isolation room)
to reduce the chances of spreading the virus to others. When your doctors and
nurses are caring for you, they will wear gloves and gowns. Some people who
have bird flu may need a machine called a
ventilator to help them breathe better. Other people
may need a machine to help the kidneys work better (dialysis). More
than half of the time, bird flu leads to death.
How can bird flu be prevented?
The World Health Organization and the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are preparing for the
possibility that bird flu could spread to people all over the world in what is
called a pandemic. In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
approved the first vaccine for humans against bird flu. Immunization is not
currently recommended for the public. The vaccine will be kept in the U.S.
government stockpile.2 Officials are also storing up
large supplies of antiviral medicines. The U.S. government has also developed a
flu plan. This is a plan to prepare for a pandemic and to make sure that as few
people as possible get the virus.
organizations now require that all infected birds be killed. Some countries
have programs to clean up poultry farms and to check that all birds are healthy
before they are sold. In 2004, the United States stopped buying poultry from
most Asian countries.
Even though there is a lot of
talk about bird flu, most people in the United States don't have to worry about
getting it. As of April 2012, no cases of bird flu in humans had been found
in the U.S. But you can take steps to lower your chances of getting
Latest information about avian influenza
organizations are studying and keeping track of bird flu, including what is
being done to prevent its spread. Their websites have the most up-to-date
information about bird flu:
Frequently Asked Questions
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is
an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC works
with state and local health officials and the public to achieve better health
for all people. The CDC creates the expertise, information, and tools that
people and communities need to protect their health—by promoting health,
preventing disease, injury, and disability, and being prepared for new health
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
Flu.gov is a website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The site provides information about the flu, including seasonal flu, H1N1 (swine) flu, and avian (bird) flu. It offers answers to frequently asked questions, and it has special sections for older adults, caregivers, travelers, pregnant women, and health professionals. The website also offers guidance on vaccinations.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is an agency of the
United Nations. It has about 200 member states. WHO promotes technical
cooperation among nations on health issues, carries out programs to control and
eliminate disease, and strives to improve the quality of human life.
The Web site has information on many health topics, including health and
disease related to travel.
Writing Committee of the Second World Health Organization Consultation on Clinical Aspects of Human Infection with Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Virus (2008). Update on avian influenza A (H5N1) virus infection in humans. New England Journal of Medicine, 358(3): 261–273.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2007). FDA approves first U.S. vaccine for humans against the avian influenza virus H5N1. FDA News. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2007/ucm108892.htm.
Other Works Consulted
Public Health Agency of Canada (2012). Current avian influenza (H5N1) affected areas. Available online: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/h5n1/index-eng.php.
Schünemann HJ, et al. (2007). WHO rapid advice guidelines for pharmacological management of sporadic human infection with avian influenza A (H5N1) virus. Lancet Infectious Disease, 7(1): 21–31.
U.K. Department of Health (2011). Bird flu and pandemic influenza: What are the risks? Available online: http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Aboutus/MinistersandDepartmentLeaders/ChiefMedicalOfficer/CMOtopics/DH_4102997.
Ungchusak K, et al. (2005). Probable person-to-person transmission of avian influenza A (H5N1). New England Journal of Medicine, 352(4): 333–340.
World Health Organization (2011). Fact Sheet: Avian Influenza ("Bird Flu"). Available online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/avian_influenza/en/index.html.
Writing Committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Human Influenza (2005). Avian influenza A (H5N1) infection in humans. New England Journal of Medicine, 353(13): 1374–1385.
July 10, 2012
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
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