You've probably heard news reports about bird flu (also called avian flu). So what is it? And should you be worried? We've put together some of the common questions people have about bird flu along with answers to help put everything in perspective.
What Is Bird Flu?
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 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 almost always kill the birds.
The strain of bird flu that has infected people in Asia and the Middle East 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. It has not been proven that H5N1 can be spread from person to person.
Why Are People So Worried About It?
Experts are concerned that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could mutate (change) into a new form that can rapidly 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 a disease that causes serious illness in people and spreads quickly throughout populations.
Vaccines can help keep a virus infection from spreading and causing a pandemic. Although there is no vaccine for the H5N1 flu virus right now, scientists are working on one.
What Are We Doing About It?
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. Experts believe only about 387 people have contracted the disease in the last 5 years.
In an effort to keep bird flu from spreading, authorities in countries that have experienced outbreaks have destroyed hundreds of millions of birds.
Three countries (Japan, Korea, and Malaysia) have controlled their outbreaks of the H5N1 strain and officials report there is no more virus in these nations.
Countries that have not had any outbreaks — including the United States — have stopped importing poultry from countries that have had avian flu outbreaks. Meanwhile, scientists are working on a vaccine to keep people from getting the avian flu.
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 antiviral medications to help people if they do become infected. Although antiviral medicines don't cure the infection, they can make an infected person's symptoms less severe.
How Does Bird Flu Spread?
Migrating birds, like ducks, geese, and swans, can carry and spread the virus to other birds — often across country borders. Some of these migratory birds don't seem to get sick from bird flu, but domesticated birds like chickens and turkeys can die from it.
A bird can get bird flu from another bird by coming into close contact with its infected feces (poop), secretions, or saliva. Birds can also get sick if they come into contact with dirt, cages, or any surfaces that have been contaminated by sick birds. That's why researchers think live bird markets, where birds are kept in close quarters, are places where the virus has spread quickly.
The virus can also spread from farm to farm if birds' infected feces and saliva get on farming equipment, like tractor wheels, clothing, and cages.
It's unlikely that a person who gets infected with the H5N1 strain of the avian flu will spread it to other people. All the human cases of bird flu so far have happened because people got it directly from infected birds. These people lived in rural areas, where many families keep small household poultry flocks that they butcher themselves. Poultry also roam freely in some of those areas, and there are lots of opportunities to be exposed to their infected feces.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
In most places, there is no immediate threat to humans from bird flu. 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. 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, talk with your doctor and visit the websites of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the WHO. The CDC posts travel warnings on its website.
If you are in a country where there has been a bird flu 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 other settings where there might be infected poultry. Avoid touching surfaces that could have been contaminated by bird saliva, feces, or urine.
Where Is Bird Flu a Problem Right Now?
Over the past couple of years there have been outbreaks of H5N1 among birds in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. So far, human cases have been confirmed in several countries in Asia and the Middle East.
Will Bird Flu Become a Concern in the United States?
The H5N1 bird flu virus has not been found in birds or humans in the United States. So unless there's a global outbreak of avian flu in people, it's unlikely that bird flu will become a problem in the United States.
But no one yet knows if there will be a global outbreak. The H5N1 strain of the virus has been around since 1997. The longer it lingers and spreads among birds, the more opportunities there will be for the virus to infect people. The more people who 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.
What Are the Signs of a Pandemic?
If clusters of people start showing symptoms of the flu in a country where it's known that the virus is spreading, that's a sign that the virus may have mutated in a way that allows it to more readily spread from person to person. Doctors and public health officials would try to find out how the people got sick. They would then use that information to try to track and stop the disease from spreading.
What Are the Symptoms of Bird Flu in Humans?
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.
Can My Pet Bird Get It?
A pet bird could get avian flu if it is exposed to another bird that's carrying the virus. Here are some things you can do to protect your bird and yourself:
- Keep your bird and its food and water inside, away from any place where it could be exposed to infected migrating or domestic birds. Don't allow your bird to drink or eat from ponds or other places outdoors that migrating birds may have flown over.
- Keep your pet bird's cage clean.
- Wash your hands after handling your pet bird, cleaning its cage, or after having any contact with your bird's secretions (like saliva, feces, or urine).
U.S. government officials have put a stop to imports of live birds and bird products (like meat and eggs) from countries where there have been outbreaks of bird flu. So if you buy a pet bird, it should not have been exposed to the virus. However, there is an illegal market for buying and selling exotic birds (like parrots, for example). So just to be safe, before you buy a bird to keep as a pet, find out where it was born and raised.
If you have any questions about buying a pet bird or your own bird's health, contact a veterinarian.
Should I Stop Eating Chicken and Turkey?
It's safe to eat properly cooked chicken, turkey, and any other poultry in the United States. Heat can destroy flu viruses, so cook poultry so that the temperature of the meat reaches at least 158º Fahrenheit (70º Celsius). Do not eat uncooked or undercooked poultry or poultry products.
Should I Get a Flu Shot?
Yes. Although you can't get vaccinated against bird flu yet, experts still encourage people to get their flu shots — especially people who are in high-risk groups. Researchers are working to develop an effective vaccine against the bird flu.
How Is Bird Flu Treated?
Doctors hope that certain antiviral 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.
Reviewed by: Joel Klein, MD
Date reviewed: December 2009
Originally reviewed by: Cecilia diPentima, MD