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