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What is Avian influenza (Bird Flu)?

Updated: Monday, June 26, 2017 5:15 PM EDT
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What is Avian influenza (Bird Flu)?

Avian Influenza is an infection caused by Avian (bird) Influenza (flu) Viruses. These viruses occur naturally in birds. Wild birds of all types carry this these viruses in their intestines, but in most cases never get sick from them. However, the viruses these birds carry are highly contagious among other birds and can make domesticated birds, including but not limited to, ducks, turkeys, chickens and geese, very sick and eventually kill them.

Can Avian Influenza Viruses infect humans?

Avian Influenza viruses do not normally infect humans, however serveral cases have been reported since 1997.

What is the difference between Avian Influenza viruses and human flu viruses?

   There are many subtypes of type A influenza viruses. These subtypes differ because of certain proteins on the surface of the influenza A virus (hemagglutinin [HA] and neuraminidase [NA] proteins). There are 16 different subtypes of the HA variety and 9 subtypes of the NA variety, of flu A viruses.

   Many combinations of HA and NA proteins are possible. Each combination is a different subtype. All known subtypes of flu A viruses can be found in birds. However, when we talk about Bird Flu viruses, we are referring to influenza A subtypes chiefly found in birds. They do not usually infect humans, even though we know they can. When we talk about "human flu viruses" we are referring to the subtypes that are most widely found in humans.

   To date we only know about three subtype A human flu viruses (H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2); it is likely that some genetic parts of current human influenza A viruses came from birds originally. Influenza A viruses are constantly changing, and they might adapt over time to infect and spread among humans.

How does Avian Influenza spread?

Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with contaminated excretions or surfaces that are contaminated with excretions.

   It is believed that most cases of bird flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. The spread of avian influenza viruses from one ill person to another has been reported very rarely, and transmission has not been observed to continue beyond one person.

How is bird flu in humans treated?

Studies done in laboratories suggest that the prescription medicines approved for human flu viruses should work in preventing Avian Influenza infection in humans. However, flu viruses can become resistant to these drugs, so these medications may not always work. Additional studies are needed to prove the effectiveness of these medicines.

What is the risk to humans from Avian Influenza?

The risk from Avian Influenza is generally low to most people because the viruses occur mainly among birds and do not usually infect humans. However, during an outbreak of Avian Influenza among poultry (domesticated chicken, ducks, turkeys), there is a possible risk to people who have contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated with excretions from infected birds. The current outbreak of avian influenza A (H5N1) among poultry in Asia and Europe (see below) is an example of an avian influenza outbreak that has caused human infections and deaths. In such situations, people should avoid contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces, and should be careful when handling and cooking poultry. In rare instances, limited human-to-human spread of H5N1 virus has occurred, and transmission has not been observed to continue beyond one person.

What is an avian influenza A (H5N1) virus?

Influenza A (H5N1) virus – also called “H5N1 virus” – is an influenza A virus subtype that occurs mainly in birds. It was first isolated from birds (terns) in South Africa in 1961. Like all bird flu viruses, H5N1 virus circulates among birds worldwide, is very contagious among birds, and can be deadly.

How is infection with H5N1 virus in humans treated?

The H5N1 virus currently infecting birds in Asia that has caused human illness and death is resistant to amantadine and rimantadine, two antiviral medications commonly used for influenza. Two other antiviral medications, oseltamavir and zanamavir, would probably work to treat flu caused by the H5N1 virus, but additional studies still need to be done to prove their effectiveness.

Is there a vaccine to protect humans from H5N1 virus?

There currently is no commercially available vaccine to protect humans against the H5N1 virus that is being seen in Asia and Europe . However, vaccine development efforts are taking place. Research studies to test a vaccine to protect humans against H5N1 virus began in April 2005, and a series of clinical trials is underway.

What is the risk to people in the United States from the H5N1 avian influenza outbreak in Asia and Europe ?

The current risk to Americans from the H5N1 avian influenza outbreak in Asia is low. The strain of H5N1 virus found in Asia and Europe has not been found in the United States . There have been no human cases of H5N1 flu in the United States . It is possible that travelers returning from affected countries in Asia could be infected if they were exposed to the virus. Since February 2004, medical and public health personnel have been watching closely to find any such cases.

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