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Avian influenza : Facts about 'Bird Flu' (H5N1)

What is the bird flu?
Avian influenza is an illness that occurs primarily in bird populations. A virus similar to the one that causes human flu causes avian influenza. There are many different strains of avian flu, just like human influenza virus.

Some strains cause no illness at all, some cause mild illness in birds, and some can kill entire flocks of domestic and wild birds.

Does it cause illness in people?
So far, only people who have had very close contact with poultry, or other birds, have gotten sick. Those who have become ill have been people who work on farms where birds are raised, or in markets where many live birds are kept and sold.

Where is it found?
Most human cases of bird flu were identified in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. The type of virus found in these countries has caused serious illness in birds and has also been the cause of serious illness in people who became infected. Since 1997, several people have died as a result of Avian flu. Infected birds have also been found in Eastern Europe and other countries. To date, there have been no birds, or people, infected with the H5N1 strain the United States.

Can the virus be passed from person to person?
Although most strains of bird flu cannot be spread from person to person, a few cases of possible human transmission are being reviewed.

Why is there so much concern?
The worry is that the virus will mutate (change) and become a serious threat to human health. If it changes, and can pass easily from person to person like the common human flu virus, we could have a major outbreak effecting people around the world, perhaps causing many deaths.

Is there a vaccine, or will the regular flu shot work?
There is no commercially available human vaccine for bird flu at this point; however, vaccine manufacturers are aggressively working to develop a vaccine that would protect people from this virus.

The regular flu shot does not protect you from avian flu.

Is there any treatment for this type of flu?
It is likely that the product, Tamiflu®, if taken in the early stages of illness, could prevent you from getting a serious case and may shorten the length of time you are sick.
Unfortunately, there is a limited supply of this medicine and, if the bird flu occurred worldwide today, there would not be enough for everyone who wanted, or needed, it.

Are we expecting an epidemic of bird flu to occur soon?
No one is certain when, or if, an epidemic of bird flu will happen. Some experts do think that it will happen sometime.

The goal is to recognize the possibility and then work to prepare for such an outbreak by developing enough effective vaccine for everyone and to increase the supply of the medication used for treatment.

What else is being done to prevent an outbreak of bird flu?
Health organizations throughout the world are monitoring the occurrence of bird flu in people and animals. They are also working to develop a rapid test that will allow doctors to tell if someone has human, or avian, influenza.

When avian flu is identified in flocks of birds, the birds are destroyed to prevent spreading the illness.

Countries where avian flu has been identified are not allowed to export birds, or other possible animal carriers, to other parts of the world.

Last Updated: 7/20/2009