You've probably heard news reports about bird flu (also
). So what is it? And should you be worried? We've put together
some of the common questions people have about bird flu along with
answers to help put everything in perspective.
What Is Bird Flu?
Avian flu is caused by a form of influenza virus that usually
only infects birds and sometimes infects pigs. The few people who
have become sick or died from the bird flu had direct contact with
Like the flu that affects humans, there are lots of different
strains (varieties) of bird flu. Some only cause mild symptoms in
birds, such as reduced egg production. Other strains are more
dangerous to birds - they spread quickly, cause more severe
symptoms, and almost always kill the birds.
The strain of bird flu that has infected people in Asia and the
Middle East recently is called H5N1. H5N1 is one of the strains
that are dangerous to birds.
The people who became infected with the H5N1 strain of avian flu
caught it directly from birds. It has not been proven that H5N1
be spread from person to person.
Why Are People So Worried About It?
Experts are concerned that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could
mutate (change) into a new form that can rapidly spread from person
to person. This has happened in past flu outbreaks and has caused
what is known as a
. A pandemic is a global outbreak of a disease that causes serious
illness in people and spreads quickly throughout populations.
Vaccines can help keep a virus infection from spreading and
causing a pandemic. Although there is no vaccine for the H5N1 flu
virus right now, scientists are working on one.
What Are We Doing About It?
The good news is that we have more information and resources
available today than we did when the last flu pandemic occurred
more than 30 years ago. Health officials around the world are
working together to try to make sure that bird flu doesn't
spread - and to keep people safe if it does. Experts believe only
about 387 people have contracted the disease in the last 5
In an effort to keep bird flu from spreading, authorities in
countries that have experienced outbreaks have destroyed hundreds
of millions of birds.
Three countries (Japan, Korea, and Malaysia) have controlled
their outbreaks of the H5N1 strain and officials report there is no
more virus in these nations.
Countries that have not had any outbreaks - including the United
States - have stopped importing poultry from countries that have
had avian flu outbreaks. Meanwhile, scientists are working on a
vaccine to keep people from getting the avian flu.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is closely monitoring the
countries where there have been outbreaks to see if the virus
spreads or mutates in a way that makes it more threatening to
people. The organization has created an emergency plan to handle a
pandemic, including stockpiling
to help people if they do become infected. Although antiviral
medicines don't cure the infection, they can make an infected
person's symptoms less severe.
How Does Bird Flu Spread?
Migrating birds, like ducks, geese, and swans, can carry and
spread the virus to other birds - often across country borders.
Some of these migratory birds don't seem to get sick from bird
flu, but domesticated birds like chickens and turkeys can die from
A bird can get bird flu from another bird by coming into close
contact with its infected feces (poop), secretions, or saliva.
Birds can also get sick if they come into contact with dirt, cages,
or any surfaces that have been contaminated by sick birds.
That's why researchers think live bird markets, where birds are
kept in close quarters, are places where the virus has spread
The virus can also spread from farm to farm if birds'
infected feces and saliva get on farming equipment, like tractor
wheels, clothing, and cages.
It's unlikely that a person who gets infected with the H5N1
strain of the avian flu will spread it to other people. All the
human cases of bird flu so far have happened because people got it
directly from infected birds. These people lived in rural areas,
where many families keep small household poultry flocks that they
butcher themselves. Poultry also roam freely in some of those
areas, and there are lots of opportunities to be exposed to their
How Can You Protect Yourself?
In most places, there is
immediate threat to humans from bird flu. The best way to protect
yourself is by doing the same things you do to protect yourself
from any contagious illness. No matter where you live and how
healthy you are, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap
and water many times a day, particularly after going to the
bathroom and before preparing meals and eating.
Wash your hands frequently if you're around someone who is
sick. Don't share that person's food or eating utensils.
It's also a good idea to wash your hands if you've touched
a surface that lots of people have been using, such as a door
You can also protect yourself by taking proper food safety
precautions. For example, never eat undercooked or uncooked
poultry. And always wash any kitchen surfaces that have had
uncooked meat on them, not just to protect against flu but also to
protect against other things that can make you sick, such as
salmonella bacteria. Separate raw meat from cooked or ready-to-eat
foods. And don't use the same cutting boards, knives, or
utensils that are used on uncooked meats on other foods.
If you're going to a country where there has been an
outbreak of bird flu, talk with your doctor and visit the websites
of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the WHO.
The CDC posts travel warnings on its website.
If you are in a country where there has been a bird flu
outbreak, avoid any contact with chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons,
turkeys, quail, or any wild birds. Stay away from live bird
markets, local poultry farms, or any other settings where there
might be infected poultry. Avoid touching surfaces that could have
been contaminated by bird saliva, feces, or urine.
Where Is Bird Flu a Problem Right Now?
Over the past couple of years there have been outbreaks of H5N1
among birds in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. So far,
human cases have been confirmed in several countries in Asia and
the Middle East.
Will Bird Flu Become a Concern in the United States?
The H5N1 bird flu virus has not been found in birds or humans in
the United States. So unless there's a global outbreak of avian
flu in people, it's unlikely that bird flu will become a
problem in the United States.
But no one yet knows if there will be a global outbreak. The
H5N1 strain of the virus has been around since 1997. The longer it
lingers and spreads among birds, the more opportunities there will
be for the virus to infect people. The more people who are infected
with the virus, the more opportunities the virus will have to
mutate into a form that could spread from person to person. That
could lead to a pandemic.
What Are the Signs That a Pandemic Is Happening?
If clusters of people start showing symptoms of the flu in a
country where it's known that the virus is spreading,
that's a sign that the virus may have mutated in a way that
allows it to spread from person to person. Doctors and public
health officials would try to find out how the people got sick.
They would then use that information to try to track and stop the
disease from spreading.
What Are the Symptoms of Bird Flu in Humans?
The symptoms of bird flu in people tend to be similar to the
typical flu: fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches. But this flu
can also lead to eye infections, pneumonia, and severe coughing and
Can My Pet Bird Get It?
A pet bird could get avian flu if it is exposed to another bird
that's carrying the virus. Here are some things you can do to
protect your bird and yourself:
- Keep your bird and its food and water inside, away from any
place where it could be exposed to infected migrating or domestic
birds. Don't allow your bird to drink or eat from ponds or
other places outdoors that migrating birds may have flown
- Keep your pet bird's cage clean.
- Wash your hands after handling your pet bird, cleaning its
cage, or after having any contact with your bird's secretions
(like saliva, feces, or urine).
U.S. government officials have put a stop to imports of live
birds and bird products (like meat and eggs) from countries where
there have been outbreaks of bird flu. So if you buy a pet bird, it
should not have been exposed to the virus. However, there is an
illegal market for buying and selling exotic birds (like parrots,
for example). So just to be safe, before you buy a bird to keep as
a pet, find out where it was born and raised.
If you have any questions about buying a pet bird or your own
bird's health, contact a veterinarian.
Should I Stop Eating Chicken and Turkey?
It's safe to eat properly cooked chicken, turkey, and any
other poultry in the United States. Heat can destroy flu viruses,
so cook poultry so that the temperature of the meat reaches at
least 158Âº Fahrenheit (70Âº Celsius). Do not eat uncooked or
undercooked poultry or poultry products.
Should I Get a Flu Shot?
Yes. Although you can't get vaccinated against bird flu yet,
experts still encourage people to get their
- especially people who are in high-risk groups. Researchers are
working to develop an effective vaccine against the bird flu.
How Is Bird Flu Treated?
Doctors hope that certain antiviral medications will help keep
the flu from spreading if it becomes contagious to humans. These
medications can't cure bird flu, but they can make the symptoms
Flu viruses can become resistant to medications, so they may not
always work. That's why experts constantly study and test
medications to determine their effectiveness and develop better
Cecilia diPentima, MD
Date reviewed: October 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.