The avian flu, more commonly known as the bird flu, is a respiratory infection caused by the H5N1 virus. The virus is common among wild birds and usually does not cause any symptoms. But, it can be deadly in domesticated poultry, such as chicken or turkeys.
Since 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, the avian flu has infected people in over 15 countries in Asia, Europe, the Near East, the Pacific, and Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 637 confirmed cases and 378 deaths occurred between 2003-2013. People at the greatest risk are those who have direct contact with sick or dead birds or with surfaces contaminated by the virus. There have been a few cases, though, where the virus spread between people.
Health officials and researchers are concerned that the virus could reach new areas, especially with H5N1 infecting migratory birds. An even greater threat is that the virus could mutate into a more contagious form, with the ability to spread more easily from birds to people and between people.
Antibodies are the body’s natural defense against infection. Vaccines work by triggering the body to make specific antibodies to a particular virus. If a person who has been vaccinated becomes infected with the virus, the antibodies quickly destroy it.
Research studies in humans began in 2005 to evaluate vaccines to prevent avian flu. In 2007, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first US vaccine to protect against a strain of the virus. The vaccine is intended for people aged 18-64 who have an increased risk of exposure to H5N1. Adults receive a series of 2 shots that are given month apart. The vaccine, though, is not available to the general public. The US government purchased it for the Strategic National Stockpile, where large supplies of medications are stored in case of a national emergency.
While researchers work toward protecting the population from H5N1, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming sick. For example, avoiding direct and indirect contact with wild and domestic birds and making sure all poultry foods are thoroughly cooked are just two ways you can lower your chance of contracting the virus.
Currently, antiviral medications are used to treat avian flu. In some groups of people with moderate or high risk for developing the flu, antiviral medication can also be used as a preventive measure. There have been cases where the flu viruses were resistant to antiviral medications.
To help reduce spreading the flu, take these steps:
If you have any questions about avian flu, or seasonal flu vaccines for you and your family, talk to your doctor.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
World Health Organization (WHO)
Canadian Lung Association
Public Health Agency of Canada
Avian influenza. World Health Organization website. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/avian_influenza/en/. Updated March 2014. Accessed July 10, 2015.
Seasonal influenza (flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avianflu. Updated March 31, 2015. Accessed July 10, 2015.
Last reviewed July 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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