Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)

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Even though Government of India states in their official newspaper release that there has not been any confirmed case of human death from bird flu, it is important for us to observe certain precautions. Department of Health has taken adequate steps to control the spread of this disease by culling poultry animals suspected of carrying this virus.
At the moment it is recommended that all poultry products be cooked to at least 70C prior to consumption. There is no cause for panic, steps taken so far are only precautionary.
I felt it was timely to present some frequently asked questions and answers to our readers of Mangalorean.com 
What is the “Bird Flu”?

Avian or Bird Flu is a type of influenza virus. Influenza viruses can infect several animal species, including birds, pigs, horses, seals and whales. Influenza viruses that infect birds are called “avian influenza viruses.” Wild birds are considered the natural hosts for influenza virus. Avian influenza viruses do not usually directly infect humans.

Where did it originate?

Wild birds are a natural reservoir for these viruses and may carry these viruses without becoming ill due to natural resistance. Wild waterfowl can then be responsible for the primary introduction of infection into domestic poultry. In intensive poultry rearing systems, young fattening turkeys and laying hens are usually the most affected species.

Is this a form of SARS?

No. SARS is caused by a coronavirus, not an influenza virus.

How is avian influenza spread?

Certain birds act as hosts of influenza viruses. Infected birds shed virus in saliva, nasal secretions and feces. Avian influenza viruses spread to susceptible birds when they have contact with contaminated nasal, respiratory and fecal material from infected birds. However, fecal-to-oral transmission is the most common mode of spread among birds (for example, contaminated food and water supplies).

Can the avian influenza be spread to humans from infected birds?

In rare instances, people can contract avian influenza. The exact mode of transmission from birds to people is not known, but most human cases of avian flu have been traced to direct contact with live infected birds or their droppings.

Is it possible to get the bird flu from eating chicken or eggs?

It is safe to eat poultry and eggs. However, Health Canada is advising travelers to affected areas in Asia that they should not consume undercooked poultry, raw eggs or lightly cooked egg products (such as runny eggs). It is also recommended to avoid unnecessary contact with live poultry. This includes markets where live birds are sold, as it is possible for the avian influenza virus to stick to hair and clothing, and it may also be inhaled.

Is it possible for this form of influenza to spread from person to person?

At this time, there is no evidence that the current strain of avian influenza in Asia is spread directly from person to person. However, it is possible that the virus could change so that it could spread easily from person to person. If a person, who is sick with human influenza, was exposed to avian influenza, there is a possibility that the avian influenza virus could acquire human influenza genes. This “mixing” could result in the creation of a new subtype of the influenza virus.

Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population. If an avian virus were able to infect people and gain the ability to spread easily from person to person, an “influenza pandemic” could begin. There is currently no evidence that this is happening.

Are certain groups of people more at risk of catching the bird flu?

People living or visiting affected areas in Asia who have direct contact with live infected birds or their droppings are at most risk of catching avian influenza.

What are the signs and symptoms of avian influenza?

The symptoms of avian influenza in humans range from typical influenza-like symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches) to eye infections, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, viral pneumonia, and other severe and life-threatening complications.

Is the bird flu deadly?

The current strain of “bird flu” circulating in Asia can be deadly. About two-thirds of infected people can die from this strain.

What are the treatment options for someone who has the bird flu?

A certain class of anti-viral drugs, called “Neuraminidase Inhibitors” is effective against the current strain of “Bird Flu”. Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is one example of this type of drug.

How can we protect our families and ourselves?

It is important to remember that infection occurs through contact with affected poultry. The chances of a person getting sick from avian influenza in Canada are extremely low. However, prevention is always the best defence against influenza. Canadians should protect themselves and each other by:

  • Getting a flu shot;
  • Washing their hands frequently; and
  • Staying home if they are sick.

Does the flu shot work against the bird flu?

The current flu vaccine will not protect you against infection with the avian influenza virus. However, current vaccines protect against circulating human strains, reducing the risk that a person who is being exposed to avian influenza will become infected with both the avian and human viruses at the same time. This will decrease opportunities for the avian influenza virus to acquire human influenza genes and create a new virus subtype against which people have no natural immunity. 
Source: The Ottawa Hospital, Canada

Author: Dr K.B. Mallya- Canada

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