While there have been no reported cases of the bird flu, or avian influenza, in the United States, there is some concern that this virus could become an epidemic. The details in this section will help you better understand the bird flu.
Bird Flu Information
Avian influenza is an infection caused by certain new strains of influenza virus that live in the intestines of birds.
Birds spread avian influenza viruses in feces, mucus, and body fluids. In birds, symptoms can be mild, but at its most severe (especially in poultry), avian influenza attacks multiple internal organs and causes death in about two days.
There are many different subtypes of bird flu viruses, and most don't affect people. However, some subtypes, most commonly the strain known as avian influenza A H5N1, can infect humans.
When a person contracts bird flu, symptoms mimic human influenza complaints, including cough, muscle aches, fever, and sore throat, but the infection might worsen and cause pneumonia, breathing difficulties, and even death. In documented cases of human infection with H5N1, half of those infected have died.
Although avian influenza viruses can spread from bird to bird and bird to person, they rarely spread from person to person, according to the National Institutes of Health. Importantly, as of this printing, the virus has not caused chains of infection from person to person, and no cases of H5N1 bird flu have been reported in the United States.
So why all the fear? The U.S. Department of State predicts the avian influenza virus could soon arrive in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to bird migration and the possibility of transportation of infected poultry.
But the bigger danger comes from the nature of viruses. The influenza virus is very dynamic and has the ability to change quickly, especially when different strains mix with each other. Experts are concerned that a bird flu virus could mutate into a highly contagious form that could be passed person to person.
People haven't developed a natural immunity to bird flu, and there are no immunizations available to protect us from it, so bird flu infection has the potential to reach epidemic proportions.
For a large epidemic (pandemic) to develop, three things have to happen. First, the virus must cause serious disease in people (which has occurred). Second, people must have little or no immunity to the virus and no vaccine available to protect them (again, this is true). And third, chains of infection must occur among people (lucky for us, this has not happened and might not).
Who's at Risk for the Bird Flu?
People in all age groups have contracted and died of bird flu. The H5N1 virus strain is especially aggressive and has caused the most reported cases, primarily infecting healthy children and young adults. This is particularly alarming because influenza usually kills the very young, the very old, and the sick. However, at this point, if you are not in an area where there is an outbreak, you are probably not at risk for getting bird flu.
Defensive Measures Against the Bird Flu
According to the CDC, there is no vaccine that will protect against the H5N1 virus, but several pharmaceutical companies are working on different ones. Two common antiviral medications, amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine), have not been effective in combating the symptoms of avian influenza, but two others, oseltamavir (Tamiflu) and zanamavir (Relenza), look promising. There is absolutely no reason to ask your physician for this medication at this point, however, even if you are traveling to affected countries.
The best defense is an easy one, and one that you will see throughout this book: Wash your hands. Frequently washing your hands with soap and hot water, especially before and after eating meals or using the bathroom, keeps a variety of bacteria and viruses at bay, including the kinds that cause bird flu. Alcohol-based sanitizers that you just rub on your hands and don't need water work well, too.
You should also get a flu shot every year. The big fear right now is that a human influenza virus and a bird flu virus could combine to form a potent virus that could easily spread among people. Flu vaccination is very successful at limiting the spread of human flu and will go a long way toward keeping this potentially deadly equation from adding up.
It's also a good idea to steer clear of wild birds; pigeons; and domesticated birds used for poultry, such as chickens, ducks, and geese, in places where there have been outbreaks among birds. These countries include Cambodia, China, Croatia, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. You can find information about all the countries that have had cases of animal and human bird flu at the U.S. government's one-stop bird flu Web site, www.avianflu.gov.
When traveling, avoid open-air markets with live birds, and don't touch surfaces contaminated with bird droppings or feathers. And watch your children, whether abroad or at home. Children often play close to the ground and pick up all kinds of things that can harbor infections. Because many kids haven't developed good hygiene habits, they are easy prey for viruses.
No evidence of transmission exists through undercooked poultry or eggs, but for any poultry-transmitted disease, precautions include:
- Keep it cooked. Eggshells can be contaminated with bird droppings that are full of pesky germs that can make their way into foods that use undercooked eggs. That means don't lick the beater after you make brownie batter or cookie dough, and don't eat Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, and other foods with raw eggs as ingredients.
- Keep it hot. If you're cooking chicken, turkey, or other poultry, use a meat thermometer to ensure it reaches an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit before eating.
- Keep it sanitized. When working with raw or partially cooked poultry, thoroughly wash everything that comes into contact with it. Sanitize cutting boards, knives, and other utensils by washing them in hot, soapy water, and use a disinfectant on counters and other surfaces. Wash your hands and dry them on a paper towel; cloth towels can harbor germs.
- Keep it separate. If you have a pet bird, don't allow it to share food or water with other birds, especially wild ones. Keep the cage clean and wash your hands after you touch your pet.
There is speculation that other pets, such as cats, may become infected with a bird flu virus if they eat a contaminated bird, prompting some veterinarians to recommend keeping cats indoors. The close and affectionate contact between pets and owners creates a transmission risk. Although cats aren't thought to spread the virus in their feces and urine as efficiently as poultry can, be sure to wash your hands after changing the litter box.
As you've seen, there are some easy preventative measures you can take that will keep you at a lower risk for ailments such as the flu, the common cold, and even the bird flu. If you follow the tips we've outlined, you may just have a healthier, happier winter.
Read more about preventing the common cold on Sharecare.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Laurie L. Dove is an award-winning Kansas-based journalist and author whose work has been published internationally. A dedicated consumer advocate, Dove specializes in writing about health, parenting, fitness, and travel. An active member of the National Federation of Press Women, Dove also is the former owner of a parenting magazine and a weekly newspaper.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers magazine and Southern Living magazine. Mann formerly was an assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.