With all of the attention that avian flu, or “bird flu,” is getting in the news, you may have questions and concerns about the condition and how it spreads. The following answers to some frequently asked questions, adapted from information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), may help.
What is avian flu?
There are many different types of influenza, or “flu,” viruses. “Avian flu” refers to a strain of influenza that chiefly is found in birds, though there have been reports of some cases in humans. It’s not the same as the flu that typically spreads among humans in winter months. But, it’s similar in that there’s a bird flu season each year, just as there is a regular flu season. And, there are strains that seem to be more dangerous than others. The current strain that’s of most concern is the H5N1 virus, which spreads very rapidly among birds and has been reported, though rarely, in humans.
What types of birds carry avian flu?
Many types of birds carry the viruses that cause avian flu. Wild birds often carry these viruses in their small intestines, but rarely get sick from them. However, the virus is very contagious among birds. In particular, domesticated birds, such as turkeys, chickens and ducks, can get very sick and often die from avian flu.
How is it transmitted?
Infected birds shed the avian flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions and feces. Other birds may become sick when they come into contact with these substances, or with surfaces that have been contaminated by them. Domesticated birds may become infected through close contact with infected birds, or from contaminated cages, water or feed. Less virulent strains may spread more slowly and go undetected. More virulent strains spread much more rapidly and are much more severe.
What causes avian flu in humans?
Most cases of avian flu infection in humans have resulted from direct contact with infected poultry, such as chickens, ducks or birds, or through contact with contaminated surfaces. There have been reports of the virus spreading from one person to another, but these cases are very rare, and transmission has not been seen to continue beyond one person. Because flu viruses are very adaptable, there is the possibility that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a virus that’s more transmissible, which is why experts are watching it very carefully.
Is avian flu found in other animals besides birds and humans?
Yes, we know that pigs, tigers leopards, ferrets and domestic cats can get avian flu. In addition, the H5N1 virus also was found in a stone marten (a weasel-like animal) in Germany in March of 2006. It’s possible that other mammals may be susceptible as well. So far, all infections among domestic cats have occurred in areas where there have been outbreaks among domestic poultry and wild birds. The cats are thought to have gotten the virus from of eating raw infected birds. Large cats kept in captivity who have gotten the virus also are thought to have become infected from eating infected raw meat, though there is some evidence that some tigers may have spread the virus to other tigers. There’s no evidence to date that cats can spread the H5N1 virus to humans. And, as long as there’s no H5N1 influenza in the United States, there’s no risk to U.S. cats. In Europe, where the virus has been found, experts have recommended that cat owners living in infected areas keep domestic
cats indoors to prevent exposure to potentially infected birds.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of avian flu in humans have ranged from typical flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches, to eye infections, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases, and other severe and life-threatening complications.
Why is avian flu in humans cause for so much concern?
One of the main concerns about avian flu in humans stems from the fact that the disease is so rare in people. Our immune systems haven’t been exposed to it, and therefore haven’t been able to develop enough of an immune response to fight it. Unfortunately, as with all new diseases, the development of effective treatments takes time. The good news is that experts are making strides in developing a vaccine, and also have been studying the effectiveness of currently available antiviral drugs in treating avian flu.
Will my annual flu vaccine protect me from bird flu?
The short answer is no. Each year, flu vaccines are made to target specific strains of influenza that experts predict will be most virulent among humans in a given year. These human influenza viruses are not the same as the viruses that cause avian flu. Still, getting a yearly flu vaccination is important, especially for people in high-risk groups.
Is it safe to eat poultry?
Yes, there haven’t been any cases of infected poultry in the United States. And, the U.S. government has taken steps to ban the import of birds or bird products from countries where avian flu has been detected. This includes eggs and other unprocessed poultry products. Still, it’s important to remember to cook chicken, turkey or other poultry thoroughly. Cooking destroys germs, including the avian flu virus. It also is an important measure to prevent food poisoning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers the following guidelines:
Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.
Keep raw poultry and its juices away from other foods.
Keep hands, utensils and surfaces such as cutting boards clean.
Use a food thermometer to ensure poultry has been fully cooked.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) http://www.usda.gov/birdflu