Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)

Bird Flu or Avian Influenza is a severe flu illness caused by the H5/N1 strain of the bird flu virus or Avian Influenza A virus.

Wild birds act as the reservoir of this virus since they are able to carry it in their intestinal tract without getting sick. However domesticated birds like chickens, ducks and turkeys get infected when they come in contact with the wild birds or their saliva, nasal secretions or feces. As wild birds migrate over vast swaths of the planet they spread the virus to domestic birds in their path.

Humans contract the infection most commonly when they come in close contact with infected domestic birds through their saliva, nasal secretions or feces.

Human beings tend to develop severe symptoms because this H5/N1 strain is so different from the usual influenza viruses that we lack immunity to fight or moderate the disease.

The first human case occurred in1997 and so far there have been 138 cases worldwide, with 71 deaths. Clearly the virus does not transmit to humans very effectively like the regular Human Influenza A virus, NOT YET. The worry is that this H5/N1 strain either by spontaneous mutation or mingling with Human Influenza strains will develop the capability to spread quickly from one person to the next. Given our lack of immunity this could have dire consequences.

Where does it occur?

Human cases have occurred in decreasing order of numbers in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Cambodia and Turkey. Cases in domestic birds have been detected all over South East Asia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Croatia, the Middle East and England. Map

How is it transmitted?

Human beings primarily contract the infection by close contact with infected domestic birds like chickens, ducks and turkeys through their saliva, nasal secretions or feces. Surfaces that are contaminated with these secretions like coops/pens/counters can also be a source of human infection.

Eating uncooked or partially cooked infected poultry parts (blood soup) might be a risk factor. There have been a handful of cases of person-to-person transmission in very close contacts, for example mother and child. However there has been no further spread than the 1st contact.

Is it contagious from person to person?

There have been rare cases of human to human spread in those taking care of sick individuals like father or mother to children, but is not common.

What is the risk for travelers?

At this time the risk to travelers is low. One should avoid contact with domestic birds and their dwellings in regions with the outbreak.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Approximately 3-7 days after exposure one develops typical flu symptoms of sore throat, cough, fever, muscle aches and headaches. This can progress rapidly to respiratory failure, multiple organ failure and death.

Are there any lab tests to diagnose the illness?

Blood antibody tests, PCR and cultures of the blood and sputum are available.

Is there any treatment?

Anti-viral medications like Oseltamivir and Zanamavir are active against the H5/N1 strain in the laboratory and should be used. Good supportive care in the intensive care setting if required is essential.

What preventive measures can be taken?

Avoid all direct contact with poultry and their secretions, saliva and feces or surfaces (coops/pens/counters) that are contaminated with the same.

Wash hands frequently

Make sure all poultry products are well cooked at high temperatures and for the time being kindly abstain from the culinary delight (we presume) of chicken ’blood soup’.

Wear protective masks if involved in taking care of afflicted individuals.

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