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Saturday, September 12, 2015
Avian flu is caused by a form of influenza virus that usually only infects birds and sometimes infects pigs. The few people who have become sick or died from the bird flu had direct contact with infected birds.
Like the flu that affects humans, there are lots of different strains (varieties) of bird flu. Some of those strains only cause mild symptoms in birds, such as reduced egg production. Other strains are more dangerous to birds - they spread quickly, cause more severe symptoms, and are almost always fatal to the birds.
The strain of the bird flu that has infected people in Asia recently is called H5N1. H5N1 is one of the strains that are dangerous to birds.
The people who became infected with the H5N1 strain of avian flu caught it directly from birds. H5N1 cannot be spread from person to person.
Experts are concerned that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could mutate (change) into a new form that can spread from person to person. This has happened in past flu outbreaks and has caused what is known as a pandemic. A pandemic is a global outbreak of flu that causes serious illness in people and spreads quickly throughout populations.
The good news is that we have more information and resources available today than we did when the last flu pandemic occurred more than 30 years ago. Health officials around the world are working together to try to make sure that bird flu doesn't spread - and to keep people safe if it does.
In an effort to keep bird flu from spreading, authorities in countries that have experienced outbreaks have destroyed more than 150 million birds.
Countries that have not had any outbreaks - including the United States - have stopped importing poultry from countries that have had avian flu outbreaks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is closely monitoring the countries where there have been outbreaks to see if the virus spreads or mutates in a way that makes it more threatening to people. The organization has created an emergency plan to handle a pandemic, including stockpiling anti-viral medications to help people if they do become infected. Although anti-viral medicines don't cure the infection, they can make an infected person's symptoms less severe.
Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with contaminated excretions or surfaces that are contaminated with excretions. It is believed that most cases of bird flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.
The best way to protect yourself is by doing the same things you do to protect yourself from any contagious illness. No matter where you live and how healthy you are, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water many times a day, particularly after going to the bathroom and before preparing meals and eating.
Wash your hands frequently if you're around someone who is sick. Don't share that person's food or eating utensils. It's also a good idea to wash your hands if you've touched a surface that lots of people have been using, such as a door handle.
You can also protect yourself by taking proper food safety precautions. For example, never eat undercooked or uncooked poultry. Heat can destroy flu viruses, so cook poultry so that the temperature of the meat reaches at least 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius). Do not eat uncooked or undercooked poultry or poultry products. And always wash any kitchen surfaces that have had uncooked meat on them, not just to protect against flu but also to protect against other things that can make you sick, such as salmonella bacteria. Separate raw meat from cooked or ready-to-eat foods. And don't use the same cutting boards, knives, or utensils that are used on uncooked meats on other foods.
If you're going to a country where there has been an outbreak of bird flu, 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 other settings where there might be infected poultry. Avoid touching surfaces that could have been contaminated by bird saliva, feces, or urine. But most importantly, talk with your doctor and visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) websites.
The symptoms of bird flu in people tend to be similar to the typical flu: fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches. But this flu can also lead to eye infections, pneumonia, and severe coughing and breathing problems.
Doctors hope that certain anti-viral medications will help keep the flu from spreading if it becomes contagious to humans. These medications can't cure bird flu, but they can make the symptoms less severe.
Flu viruses can become resistant to medications, so they may not always work. That's why experts constantly study and test medications to determine their effectiveness and develop better ones. Meanwhile, scientists are working on a vaccine to keep people from getting the bird flu.
This article originally appeared in Netwell (Winter 2006), a quarterly publication by OSU Managed Health Care Systems, the OSU Faculty and Staff Wellness Program, and the OSU Office of Human Resources and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2006.
Last Reviewed: Jan 06, 2006
Professor of Family Medicine
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University