What Is Bird Flu? Should We Be Concerned?

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Bird flu (also referred to as avian flu), as the name implies, is an infection in birds caused by an influenza virus. Influenza viruses that infect birds often do not cause illness in birds. Since the viruses are highly contagious, danger to humans arises when domesticated birds (for example chickens, ducks, and turkeys) become infected. While bird flu usually poses no threat to humans, instances of transmission of bird flu to humans have been reported since 1997, and over 100 people were infected in an outbreak that began in Southeast Asia in mid-2003. In November 2010, officials in Hong Kong announced that a woman had contracted bird flu, the first reported case of the condition in seven years. The 59-year-old woman had recently traveled to mainland China but reported no contact with live poultry or visits to farms.

Birds infected with avian influenza virus can transmit the virus to humans through their excretions: saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. During an outbreak of bird flu among poultry, there is a possible risk of spread to people who have contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated by infected birds.

A recent outbreak of bird flu that has affected humans involves the influenza A (H5N1) virus, sometimes referred to as the "H5N1 virus." Outbreaks of influenza H5N1 infection occurred in poultry in eight countries in Asia during late 2003 and 2004, resulting in more than 150 million birds either dying from the disease or being killed in order to try to control the outbreak. This widespread outbreak also led to documented human infections and deaths in several countries.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/9/2014