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Bird Flu

(Avian Influenza)

Bird flu has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of wild and domestic birds and
to a small number of human deaths. Right now, however, bird flu remains difficult for
humans to contract. Most people who have developed symptoms have had close
contact with sick birds, though in a few cases, bird flu has passed from one person to

Health officials are concerned that a major bird flu outbreak could occur in humans if
the virus — H5N1 — mutates into a form that can spread more easily from person to
person. The grimmest scenario would be a global outbreak to rival the flu pandemic
of 1918 and 1919, which claimed millions of lives worldwide. For now, researchers
are trying to develop a vaccine that would protect people in the event of a bird flu


Although the exact incubation period for bird flu in humans isn't clear, illness seems
to develop within one to five days of exposure to the virus.

Common signs and symptoms

Most often, signs and symptoms of bird flu resemble those of conventional influenza,

 Cough
 Fever
 Sore throat
 Muscle aches

A relatively mild eye infection (conjunctivitis) is sometimes the only indication of the

Severe signs and symptoms

People with bird flu also may develop life-threatening complications, particularly:

 Viral pneumonia
 Acute respiratory distress — the most common cause of bird flu-related deaths


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 36,000
people die of influenza in the United States each winter. And three or four times every
century, a flu pandemic sweeps the globe, claiming millions of lives. That the flu can
cause so much misery is a result of its ability to change quickly and unexpectedly, to
outwit "best guess" vaccines, and to take the immune system by storm.
The ABCs of influenza viruses
Influenza viruses are divided into three types (strains) of viruses — influenza A, B
and C. Type A is responsible for the deadly influenza pandemics. Type B can lead to
smaller, more localized outbreaks. Less common and more stable than other strains,
type C has milder symptoms. Either types A or B can cause the flu that circulates
almost every winter. Types B and C are usually found only in humans, whereas type
A infects both people and animals, including birds, pigs, horses, whales and seals.

Numerous influenza A subtypes exist, and they can combine to form even more
subtypes, some of which affect only certain animals. At least 15 flu subtypes affect
birds, the most virulent of which is H5N1. Until recently, avian subtypes have rarely
been found in humans or in animals other than pigs.

Type A influenza viruses are further divided into strains, which are constantly
evolving. And it is exactly this — the ability of influenza viruses to change their
genetic makeup and to swap genes — that makes them so unpredictable and
potentially deadly.

How humans get bird flu

Avian viruses generally don't affect humans, but in 1997, an outbreak of bird flu in
Hong Kong infected 18 people, six of whom died. Since then, human cases of bird flu
have been reported in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Most were traced to contact
with infected poultry or surfaces contaminated by sick birds.

Often, flu viruses that cross the species barrier originate in areas where people live in
close proximity to chickens and pigs. That's because pigs are susceptible to infection
with both avian and human viruses and so are an ideal "mixing bowl" for genes.

But at least some bird flu viruses don't need a third party. Instead, they shuffle and
rearrange their genetic material directly in humans. That seems to be the case in most
instances of human-acquired bird flu. People become sick after direct contact with
infected birds or bird-contaminated surfaces, not from contact with other animals.

Direct bird-to-human transmission works like this:

 Wild birds shed the virus. Infected migratory waterfowl, the natural carriers of bird flu
viruses, shed the virus in their droppings, saliva and nasal secretions.
 The virus spreads to domesticated birds. Domestic poultry become infected from contact with
these birds or with contaminated water, feed or soil. Bird flu spreads quickly within a
domestic flock and is inadvertently transported from farm to farm on equipment, cages, and
workers' shoes and clothing. Heat destroys the virus, but it can survive for extended periods
in cool temperatures.
 Markets provide pathways to humans. Open-air markets, where eggs and birds are sold in
crowded and unsanitary conditions, are hotbeds of infection and spread the disease into the
wider community. At any point along the way, humans may pick up the virus through close
contact with sick birds or contaminated surfaces. An ailing bird can shed the virus in its
feathers as well as in droppings, and some people have contracted bird flu simply by
touching an infected bird.

The ease of worldwide travel has the potential to spread bird flu around the globe.
And migratory birds can carry the virus from continent to continent along flyways.
Outbreaks may also spread locally through unsanitary markets, contaminated clothing
and equipment, and smuggled birds.

Prelude to a pandemic?
H5N1 mutates quickly and is able to incorporate large blocks of genetic code from
viruses that infect other species, a process called reassortment. For that reason, H5N1
has particular potential to combine with a human flu virus, creating a new viral strain
that spreads rapidly from person to person. The emergence of such a virus would
mark the beginning of a potentially devastating pandemic. The ability of H5N1 to
evolve rapidly was demonstrated in October 2006 when a new strain, called H5N1
Fujian-like, appeared in China and spread quickly throughout much of Southeast
Asia. The new strain is immune to the vaccines normally given to birds to prevent
H5N1 infections.

Risk factors

The greatest risk factor for bird flu seems to be contact with sick birds or with
surfaces contaminated by their feathers, saliva or droppings. The World Health
Organization (WHO) has confirmed a handful of cases of limited human-to-human
transmission of bird flu. But unless the virus begins to spread more easily among
people, infected birds or associated material presents the greatest hazard.

The pattern of human transmission remains mysterious. Young children seem

especially vulnerable to the virus, although some experts note that children are more
likely to have contact with sick birds or to play on ground contaminated with
droppings. What's more, people of all ages have contracted and died of bird flu. At
this point, too few people have been infected to know all the possible risk factors for
bird flu.

When to seek medical advice

See your doctor immediately if you develop flu symptoms, including a fever, cough
and body aches, and have recently traveled to a part of the world where bird flu
occurs. Be sure to let your doctor know when and where you traveled and whether
you visited any farms or open-air markets.

Doctors have rapid tests to identify the flu virus, but until recently, the tests couldn't
distinguish between avian flu and other influenza A viruses. For that reason,
specimens from anyone with a suspected case of bird flu were sent to state health labs
or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for analysis. However, in
September 2007, researchers in Singapore announced a new rapid test that detects
bird flu by taking a swab of your throat, then analyzing the collected droplets using a
hand-held device. This test or similar ones may become commercially available in the


Most people with bird flu have signs and symptoms of conventional influenza. Some
also develop life-threatening complications such as viral pneumonia and acute
respiratory distress syndrome, which causes the air sacs in your lungs to fill with
fluid, leading to severe breathing difficulties. More than half the people who have
contracted bird flu have died.

But the greatest complication of bird flu is still hypothetical — the emergence of a
new viral strain that spreads easily from person to person. If a person were
simultaneously infected with human and bird flu viruses, the reassortment of genetic
material could produce an entirely new subtype with a majority of human genes. This
could make the virus highly contagious and, with little natural immunity among the
world population, especially lethal.

So far this hasn't happened. A few cases of person-to-person transmission have

occurred, but they were limited in scale. Still, some health officials fear that it's just a
matter of time before avian viruses figure out a way to spread easily among people.

Treatments and drugs

For now, the primary treatment option remains the flu drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu),
which works by preventing the virus from multiplying. It's not clear how effective
Tamiflu will prove against H5N1. Another antiviral flu drug, zanamivir (Relenza),
may be an alternative. However, viruses may become resistant to both of these drugs.

These drugs must be taken within two days after the appearance of symptoms,
something that may prove logistically difficult on a worldwide scale, even if there
were enough to go around. Because they're in short supply, it's not entirely clear how
flu drugs would be allocated if there were a widespread epidemic.


Bird flu vaccine

In April 2007, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first human vaccine to
prevent infection with one strain of H5N1 bird flu virus. This new bird flu vaccine
isn't available to the public, but the U.S. government is stockpiling it and will
distribute it in the event of an outbreak. It's intended to help protect adults ages 18 to
64 and could be used early in such an outbreak to provide limited protection until
another vaccine — designed to protect against the specific form of the virus causing
the outbreak — is developed and produced.

When tested, the bird flu vaccine fully protected only about 45 percent of those
vaccinated — about half the effectiveness rate of the seasonal influenza vaccine.
However, it still may help reduce the severity of the disease and decrease the risk of
hospitalization and death in those who aren't fully protected.

Researchers are also studying other vaccines. One such vaccine, not yet approved for
humans, appears to be safe and even more effective than the currently approved
vaccine. Research published in the June 2008 issue of the New England Journal of
Medicine showed that up to 75 percent of those injected with the vaccine produced
antibodies to multiple strains of the bird flu virus. And, because this vaccine can be
created in cell culture instead of an egg, it could be produced more quickly than the
already approved vaccine.
Recommendations for travelers
If you're traveling to Southeast Asia or to any region with bird flu outbreaks, consider
these public health recommendations:

 Avoid domesticated birds. If possible, avoid rural areas, small farms and especially any
close contact with domesticated fowl.
 Avoid open-air markets. These can be interesting places to visit, but they're often breeding
grounds for disease.
 Wash your hands. This is one of the simplest and best ways to prevent infections of all kinds.
When you're traveling, alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol
are an excellent choice. They are effective, easy to use, don't require water, and they're safe
for children.
 Watch your kids. Keep a careful eye on young children, who are likely to put their hands in
their mouths and who may not wash thoroughly.
 Steer clear of raw eggs. Because eggshells are often contaminated with bird droppings,
avoid mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, ice cream, and any other foods containing raw or
undercooked eggs.
 Ask about a flu shot. Before traveling, ask your doctor about a flu shot. It won't protect you
specifically from bird flu, but it may help reduce the risk of simultaneous infection with bird
and human flu viruses.

Preparing poultry
Because heat destroys avian viruses, WHO officials don't consider cooked poultry a
health threat. Even so, it's best to take precautions when handling and preparing
poultry, which is often contaminated with salmonella or other harmful bacteria.

 Wash well. Carefully wash cutting boards, utensils and all surfaces that have come into
contact with raw poultry in hot, soapy water. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after
handling poultry and dry them with a disposable towel.
 Cook thoroughly. Cook chicken until the juices run clear, and it reaches a minimum
internal temperature of 165 F (74 C).