• Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)

    World health officials are closely monitoring an outbreak of avian influenza A (H5N1), or bird flu, that is spreading through Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia at a concerning rate. Evidence is starting to show that bird flu-previously contracted only from poultry-is now beginning to spread among humans. Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population. If the H5N1 virus were able to infect people and spread easily from person to person, influenza pandemic, or worldwide outbreak of disease, could begin. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Julie Gerberding, MD, is warning that a current outbreak of avian influenza could lead to catastrophic outcomes.

    Based on historical patterns, influenza pandemics can be expected to occur, on average, three to four times each century when new virus strains emerge and are readily transmitted from person to person. The occurrence of flu pandemics, however, is unpredictable. In the 20th century, the great flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 caused an estimated 20 million deaths worldwide.

    Bird flu is caused by wild birds that carry avian influenza viruses in their intestines, usually without getting sick from them. Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with excretions or surfaces that are contaminated with excretions. The virus is very contagious among birds and can cause illness and death in some domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks and turkeys. The virus can also be spread to humans through contact with infected birds or their excreta.

    Symptoms of avian influenza in humans have ranged from typical flu-like symptoms (e.g., fever, cough and muscle aches) to conjunctivitis, pneumonia and acute respiratory distress.

    The recently encountered avian influenza A (H5N1) virus strain appears to be more virulent and resistant to older antiviral medications such as amantadine or rimantadine. There is currently no vaccine to protect humans against the H5N1 strain that is being seen in Asia. Vaccine development efforts are under way.

    When traveling abroad, several common sense prevention measures can be taken. Avoid all direct contact with poultry, including touching well-appearing, sick, or dead chickens and ducks. Avoid places such as poultry farms and bird markets where live poultry are raised or kept, and avoid handling surfaces contaminated with poultry feces or excretions.

    One of the most important preventive practices is careful and frequent hand washing. Cleaning your hands often, using either soap and water or waterless alcohol-based hand rubs, removes potentially infectious materials from your skin and helps prevent disease transmission. Influenza viruses are destroyed by heat. As a precaution, all foods from poultry, including eggs and poultry blood, should be thoroughly cooked.

    For additional information and updates on Avian influenza, please visit the CDC and WHO Web sites.
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