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Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is an infection caused by a type of avian influenza virus. This virus is common in wild birds. Most of the time, wild birds do not get sick from the virus. But wild birds can easily pass the virus to birds that are being raised for food—such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys—and cause them to get very sick.

Usually, bird flu virus is not passed from birds to people. But since 1997, some people have become sick with a serious, deadly type of bird flu. Most of these infections have been in Asian countries among people who have had contact with birds that are being raised for food.

What causes bird flu?

Bird flu is caused by an infection with a virus. Once a wild bird infects a farm-raised bird, the virus can easily and quickly spread among hundreds and thousands of birds. Sick birds must then be killed to stop the virus from spreading.

Most people do not need to worry about getting sick with bird flu virus. You cannot get bird flu from eating cooked chicken, turkey, or duck because heat makes the bird flu virus inactive.

People who come into contact with sick chickens, ducks, or turkeys have an increased chance of getting the virus. Bird flu virus can be passed through bird droppings and saliva. It can also live on surfaces such as cages, tractors, and other farm equipment.

Why are people so worried about bird flu?

In a few cases, experts think that bird flu was passed from a person to a person, not from a bird to a person. Because viruses can change quickly (mutate), experts worry that bird flu will one day be passed easily from person to person. This is a scary possibility because the bird flu virus is stronger than other types of flu viruses. Even though less than 150 people have gotten sick with bird flu, about half of them have died.

Experts also worry because the bird flu virus is so different from other flu viruses that our bodies do not have any immunity. Not having immunity means that our bodies have a hard time fighting the virus. It also means that healthy, young people can get sick just as easily as people who are older or less healthy.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of bird flu in people depend on the type of virus causing the infection. If you have traveled somewhere where there is bird flu and you have a fever and a hard time breathing, contact your doctor right away.

Symptoms of bird flu can be the same as common flu symptoms, such as:

  • A fever.
  • A cough.
  • A sore throat.
  • Muscle aches.
  • An eye infection (conjunctivitis).

More serious symptoms of bird flu include:

  • Pneumonia, a serious lung infection.
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung problem.

How is it diagnosed and treated?

If your doctor thinks you may have bird flu, he or she will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your symptoms and past health. Your doctor will also ask you where you have traveled recently and if you were around any birds. Then your doctor may order blood tests, nasal swabs, or other tests, such as X-rays, to help find out what is making you sick.

Treatment for bird flu depends on what the virus is doing to your body. In some cases, antiviral medicines may help make the virus less severe. But experts are concerned that bird flu is resistant to certain antiviral medicines. Viruses become resistant when they change over time and then the medicines that used to kill them no longer work well.

If you have bird flu, you will stay in a private hospital room to reduce the chances of spreading the virus to others. When your doctors and nurses are caring for you, they will wear gloves and gowns. Some people who have bird flu may need a machine to help them breathe better (a ventilator). Other people may need a machine to help the kidneys work better (kidney dialysis). About half of the time, bird flu leads to death.

So far, no cases of bird flu in humans have been found in the United States. Most cases have occurred in Asian countries.

What is being done to prevent the spread of bird flu? What can I do to prevent it?

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are preparing for the possibility that bird flu could spread to people all over the world (a pandemic). Experts are working on a shot (vaccine) to protect people from getting bird flu virus. They are also storing up large supplies of antiviral medicines. The United States’ government has also developed a flu plan. This is a plan to prepare for a pandemic and to make sure as few people as possible get the virus.

International health organizations now require that all infected birds be killed. Some countries have programs to clean up poultry farms and to check that all birds are healthy before they are sold. In 2004, the United States stopped buying poultry from most Asian countries.

Even though there is a lot of talk about bird flu, most people do not have to worry about getting it. No cases of bird flu in humans have been found in the United States. But you can take steps to lower your chances of getting infected.

  • If you are traveling to a country where there is bird flu:
    • Ask your doctor about getting a regular flu shot. It is best to do this at least 2 weeks before you leave. This will not prevent bird flu, but it may help you avoid getting the regular flu.
    • Avoid poultry farms and close contact with chickens, turkeys, or ducks.
    • Stay away from open-air markets where live birds are sold.
  • Keep your hands clean by washing them often with soap and warm water or using a hand gel that kills germs. If you use a hand gel, be sure to buy only gels made with alcohol. They do the best job of cleaning your hands.
  • Do not eat raw eggs or raw poultry. But you can safely eat cooked eggs, chicken, duck, and turkey because heat makes the bird flu virus inactive.

These organizations are studying and keeping track of bird flu, including what is being done to prevent its spread. Their Web sites have the most up-to-date information about bird flu:


Last modified on: 8 September 2017

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