Both wild and domestic birds can become ill with avian influenza, also known as bird flu. When humans come into close contact with sick birds, they may inhale or ingest some of the virus and become infected. It’s not common for people to develop avian influenza, and it almost always can be traced to contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated with the virus. It may be possible for bird flu to spread between humans, but it is very rare.
There are two main types of bird flu: Low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) which produces more mild symptoms, and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that can produce very serious illness.
People who have become sick with LPAI may develop conjunctivitis, or have symptoms similar to mild influenza, including muscle aches, fever, sore throat and cough. In some instances, pneumonia can develop, which will typically require hospital care.
HPAI can cause severe respiratory illness and can cause organs to shut down. Patients may have pain, nausea, diarrhea and seizures. This type can be fatal in rare cases.
Though there are several different types of bird flu that result from a viral infection, Influenza A is the only viruses of the four for which wild birds are natural hosts. The Influenza A virus has many subtypes, two of which – H5N1 and H7N9 – have caused concern most recently.
Bird flu cannot be passed on through direct human contact; instead, it is caused by humans having direct contact with infected birds, which can be dead or alive, the droppings of the infected bird, or contact with secretions that come from the bird’s eyes or throat. Bird flu is not easy to transmit – close, prolonged contact is required for it to be caused.
Some examples of how the flu virus may be transmitted, leading to bird flu being caused in humans, include:
– touching birds that are infected with the virus, whether the birds are dead or alive
– inhaling or coming into direct contact with infected birds’ sneezing or dust from infected birds’ droppings or bedding
– culling, butchering or preparing infected birds ready to cook (though once poultry and eggs are properly cooked, they are completely safe to eat, even in areas with bird flu outbreaks)
– visiting live markets where infected birds are kept in crowed, unclean conditions.
Any person diagnosed with bird flu will likely be given antiviral medications to lessen the impact of the disease and shorten the period of illness. Antivirals are most effective if given within 48 hours of the onset of bird flu, so seek medical assistance as soon as possible if you suspect you are ill or have been in contact with sick birds.
If the strain of avian influenza is not susceptible to antiviral drugs, medical professionals can treat the symptoms of mild illness with medications such as pain relievers, and cough suppressants as well as intravenous fluids. More severe cases require hospitalization and respiratory support.
Mild cases of bird flu can be treated like any type of influenza, with plenty of rest and fluids. However, because of the potential severity of the disease and the desire to keep it from spreading, you may be hospitalized for the duration of your illness.
Avoiding exposure to the birds and other sources is really the best means of preventing bird flu at the moment. For example, avoid going to live markets or poultry farms and avoid areas where there may be contaminated bird droppings. Don’t pick up or touch any birds, and don’t bring live poultry back from areas where there was bird flu.
Additionally, practicing good hygiene, such as regularly washing hands and wiping down surfaces with antibacterial spray is a good idea. Undercooked poultry products, such as meat which has not been cooked to a high enough temperature or runny eggs, can be sources of infection as well, so fully cook all poultry products.
Biosecurity and infection control practices are continuing to evolve with new regulations attempting to continuously ensure that those who work around poultry and in other vulnerable occupations have less of a chance of contraction.