Q. What is avian flu (also known as bird flu or avian influenza)?
A. Avian flu is an infection caused by a type of influenza virus carried by birds. Although flu viruses occur naturally among wild birds, most do not kill them. A new strain of “avian flu” is causing international concern because it is a particularly virulent type of influenza virus that is killing domesticated birds such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys.
Q. How does avian flu spread?
A. Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they come in contact with these secretions. It is believed that most cases of avian flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.
Q. Do avian flu viruses infect people?
A. Avian flu viruses do not usually infect people, but several cases of human infection with avian flu viruses have occurred since 1997.
Q. What is the risk to humans from avian flu?
A. The risk from avian flu is generally low to most people since the viruses occur mainly among birds and do not usually infect people. However, during an outbreak of avian flu among poultry (domesticated chicken, ducks, turkeys), there is a possible risk to people who have contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces.
The current outbreak of avian flu among poultry in Asia (see below) is an example of an avian flu outbreak that has caused human infections and deaths. Outbreaks of a strain of avian flu (H5N1) occurred among poultry in eight countries in Asia in 2003 and early 2004. At that time, more than 100 million birds in the affected countries either died from the disease or were killed in order to try to control the outbreak. By June, 2004, new outbreaks of avian flu (H5N1) appeared in poultry in some Asian countries and by 2005, an outbreak appeared in poultry in Europe. Human infections with this strain of avian flu (H5N1) have also occurred.
The risk to humans from avian flu would greatly increase if the avian flu virus were to adapt to humans, making person-to-person spread possible. In such a situation, a widespread flu pandemic could occur.
Q. What is a widespread flu pandemic?
A. An influenza pandemic is a global outbreak of influenza (flu) that occurs when a new strain of flu virus emerges into the human population and spreads from person to person.
Q. Have widespread flu pandemics occurred before?
A. During the 20th century, there were three widespread flu pandemics, all of which spread around the world within one year of being detected. These were:
Q. Does a person’s annual flu shot offer protection against avian flu?
A. No, the annual flu shot provides protection from the currently circulating strains of influenza. However, the flu strains currently circulating worldwide are different from the avian flu strain, so that the annual flu shot does not protect against avian flu.
Q. Is there a vaccine to protect people from the avian flu?
A. A vaccine is currently under development, but is not yet ready for widespread distribution.
Q. What are the symptoms of avian flu in humans?
A. Symptoms of avian flu in humans have ranged from typical flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches) to eye infections, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases (such as acute respiratory distress) and other severe and life-threatening complications.
Q. How is avian flu in humans treated?
A. Studies suggest that the prescription medicines approved for human flu viruses would work in treating avian flu infections in humans. However, since flu viruses can become resistant to these drugs, these medications may not always work.