Avian influenza is a strain of influenza virus that primarily infects birds. It is often called the bird flu.
In Asia and Africa, there have been cases of avian influenza that have the ability to infect humans. The most significant of these avian influenza strains is called H5N1. This strain can cause serious illness and death.
Avian influenza is caused by a specific influenza type A virus. The virus is common among wild and domestic birds but rarely infects humans. Occasionally, the virus can mutate which allows it to infect humans.
The virus is passed through contact with an infected animal’s:
- Saliva or blood
- Nasal secretions
Avian influenza is not contracted through eating well-cooked poultry, eggs, or pork products. The virus rarely passes from one human to another, when it does it is usually a weakened version of the virus. Infections are being monitored to see if the virus mutates in a way that allows it to easily pass between humans.
Close contact with infected poultry increases your chance of avian influenza. This may include domestic or wild ducks, geese, chickens or turkeys.
Your chance of infection is also increased with recent travel to an area known to have avian influenza. Avian influenza outbreaks are most common in Asia, the Middle East, and northeast Africa.
These symptoms may be caused by other less serious conditions. Symptoms of avian influenza may include:
More severe infections can lead to pneumonia or serious organ failure.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. You will be asked about potential exposure opportunities. A physical exam will be done.
Nasal or respiratory secretions or blood can be tested for the presence of the virus.
Antiviral medications can help decrease your symptoms and the length of time you are sick. They can not cure the flu. The sooner the medication is started the more effective it can be. Ideally the medication should be started within 48 hours of the first symptoms.
Some health experts are concerned that this virus could eventually cause a worldwide outbreak known as a pandemic. Medical organizations such as WHO and CDC monitor avian influenza rates worldwide to look for any outbreaks. National and international efforts may be used if there is evidence of a pandemic, to decrease further spread of the infection.
The overall risk of getting avian flu is small. Steps to help you reduce your risk include:
- Get a yearly flu vaccine. This is the best step to prevent an infection with influenza virus.
- Avoid traveling to areas where there are avian influenza outbreaks. For the latest travel information, visit the CDC's Traveler's Health page.
- Avoid contact with potentially infected poultry or swine. This includes farms or open air markets.
- Wash your hands often if you are in an area where exposure to the influenza virus is possible. Be sure that hands are washed before preparing food. Use a hand sanitizer if clean water is not available for washing.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a vaccine to protect against H5N1 in adults aged 18-64. It will be made available in the event of an outbreak. Vaccinations can protect the individual and may control the spread of the infection.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 05/2013 -
- Update Date: 05/15/2013 -