Bird flu (Avian Influenza)

Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, is a type A influenza virus. It is lethal to poultry and is potentially fatal in humans. Bird flu spreads between both wild and domesticated birds. It has also been passed from birds to humans who are in close contact with poultry or other birds. 

There is no clear evidence that the virus can be transmitted from human to human. However this may have happened in rare cases, where a person has become ill after caring for a sick family member. 

Scientists are concerned that the bird flu virus may combine with a human flu virus and mutate, which may make transmission between humans possible.

The strain of bird flu presently affecting Asia is the H5N1 strain. This strain has killed more than 130 people in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Eygpt, China, and Iraq since 2003. 

There have been several bird flu outbreaks in Australia among commercial flocks of birds, all of which have been contained and eradicated. 

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Although there are several types of bird flu, H5N1 was the first avian influenza virus to infect humans. The first infection occurred in Hong Kong in 1997. The outbreak was linked to handling infected poultry.

H5N1 occurs naturally in wild waterfowl, but it can spread easily to domestic poultry. The disease is transmitted to humans through contact with infected bird feces, nasal secretions, or secretions from the mouth or eyes.

Consuming properly cooked poultry or eggs from infected birds doesn’t transmit the bird flu, but eggs should never be served runny. Meat is considered safe if it has been cooked to an internal temperature of 165ºF (73.9ºC).


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has approved a test designed to identify avian influenza. The test is called influenza A/H5 (Asian lineage) virus real-time RT-PCR primer and probe set. It can offer preliminary results in only four hours. However, the test isn’t widely available.

Your doctor may also perform the following tests to look for the presence of the virus that causes bird flu:

  • auscultation (a test that detects abnormal breath sounds)
  • white blood cell differential
  • nasopharyngeal culture
  • chest X-ray

Additional tests can be done to assess the functioning of your heart, kidneys, and liver.


Different types of bird flu can cause different symptoms. As a result, treatments may vary.

In most cases, treatment with antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) can help reduce the severity of the disease. However, the medication must be taken within 48 hours after symptoms first appear.

The virus that causes the human form of the flu can develop resistance to the two most common forms of antiviral medications, amantadine and rimantadine (Flumadine). These medications shouldn’t be used to treat the disease.

Your family or others in close contact with you might also be prescribed antivirals as a preventive measure, even if they aren’t sick. You’ll be placed in isolation to avoid spreading the virus to others.

Your doctor may place you on a breathing machine if you develop a severe infection.


Your doctor may recommend you get a flu shot so that you don’t also get a human strain of influenza. If you develop both the avian flu and human flu at the same time, it could create a new and possibly deadly form of the flu.

The CDC has issued no recommendations against traveling to countries that are affected by H5N1. However, you can minimize your risk by avoiding:

  • open-air markets
  • contact with infected birds
  • undercooked poultry

Be sure to practice good hygiene and wash your hands regularly.

The FDA has approved a vaccine designed to protect against the avian flu, but the vaccine isn’t currently available to the public. Experts recommend that the vaccine be used if H5N1 begins to spread among people.

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