Bird Flu (Avian Influenza, Avian Flu)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

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How do physicians diagnose bird flu?

Routine tests for human influenza A will be positive in patients with bird flu but are not specific for the avian virus. To make a specific diagnosis of bird flu, specialized tests are needed. In the United States, local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can provide access to the specialized testing. The virus can be detected in sputum by several methods, including culture or polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Cultures should be done in laboratories that have an appropriate biosafety certification. PCR detects nucleic acid from the influenza A virus. Specialized PCR testing is available in reference laboratories to identify avian strains; the CDC is a primary source for available tests for the newest strains of bird flu and can identify the specific type of virus (for example, H5N1 or H7N9).

During and after infection with bird flu, the body makes antibodies against the virus. Blood tests can detect these antibodies, but this requires one sample at the onset of disease and another sample several weeks later. Thus, results are usually not available until the patient has recovered or died.

What is the treatment for bird flu?

Because of the small number of human cases, it has not been possible to conduct rigorous treatment trials for bird flu. The CDC suggests the best way to prevent bird flu is to avoid exposure whenever possible to birds and their feces. People are advised not to touch any ill appearing or dead birds. The CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommend oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) for the treatment and prevention of avian influenza a viruses. The U.S. government is currently stockpiling H5N1 vaccine in case the virus begins easy person-to-person transmission. Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against H7N9 types of bird flu.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/19/2015
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