Bird flu, or avian influenza, is a contagious disease of birds that can pass to humans. Veterinary scientists first learned of the virus in the early 1900’s but only lately has the world felt a strong impact of the dangerous disease. From Turkey to Romania the H5N1 strain of the virus has caused damage and despair.
A growing number of countries, particularly in southeast Asia, have reported outbreaks of the virus after discovering unusual deaths of chickens, ducks and even in pigs. The virus spreads rapidly throughout flocks or farms, and can be transmitted to humans as well. There are 15 different strains of the bird flu but it is the H5N1 strain that is currently a serious threat to humanity.
Those who work with chickens seem to be the most at risk since the discovery of infected birds usually comes after the workers have already been exposed. As near as can be determined the virus is inhaled, by humans, through germs in dust from droppings that have dried. Although the disease cannot be passed from human to human, many people can be infected by one bird. And, experts speculate that as the virus develops it may be possible to pass from person to person.
Symptoms of the disease include fever, sore throat and coughing. It usually takes three to five days to develop symptoms after being exposed. Over 50% of the people who become infected with the disease die from it. In birds, swelling of the eyes or ear lobes may be evident at death.
Although experts recommend that entire farms be eliminated upon learning of even one case among them, there is no indication that eating poultry can infect consumers. To be infected a person must live or work in close proximity to an infected bird. As far as is known, there are no birds that are immune to the virus. In an attempt to control the spread of the disease many countries have now banned importing chickens or feathers from various other countries.
Flu vaccinations, received by millions of people every year, offer no protection against this particular virus. Scientists would have to work with the actual mutated virus in order to manufacture a vaccination that may possibly help to prevent the disease. Antiviral drugs that are available by prescription today offer limited protection against symptoms and reduce the chances of the virus spreading.
For those who work with birds there’s really no absolute way to prevent exposure to the virus but notifying those in charge in the case that you find a dead bird is a way to keep on top of the epidemic. The problem is, in an effort to prevent destruction of thousands of birds and hundreds of dollars, some workers or farm owners don’t report the bird’s death, causing an even bigger problem. Out of fear of losing their family’s income some people simply get rid of the dead bird and continue on, not realizing that they are putting not only the workers at risk but their families as well.
For the average person who never works around birds there’s little that can be done to protect oneself from the disease. Should you encounter a dead bird, whether in your local park or your own back yard, it’s pertinent to inform local officials of the find.
If you’ve recently traveled to south Asia, and are experiencing some flu symptoms, your physician can perform a rapid diagnostic flu test for influenza. Don’t take down your bird feeders or forego the turkey on Thanksgiving, there’s no reason to panic – yet.