SEVERAL OF our clients have voiced their concerns about travelling to countries that may have been affected by an outbreak of avian or bird flu. For example, the reported outbreak of the virus on just one farm in Turkey has already seriously affected the country’s tourism industry. Although the risk to humans is extremely low, it is always worthwhile knowing the facts before you travel to any country that has reported outbreaks of bird flu, so here is our guide to the situation at the moment.
What is avian influenza
Bird flu is an infection caused by avian (bird) influenza (flu) viruses. These flu viruses occur naturally among birds. Wild birds worldwide carry the viruses in their intestines, but usually do not get sick from them. However, bird flu is very contagious among birds and can kill domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks and turkeys.
Do bird flu viruses
Bird flu viruses do not usually infect humans, but several cases of human infection with bird flu viruses have occurred since 1997.
How are bird flu viruses
different from human flu viruses?
There are many different subtypes of type A flu viruses. These subtypes differ because of certain proteins on the surface of the flu A virus (hemagglutinin [HA] and neuraminidase [NA] proteins). There are 16 different HA subtypes and nine different NA subtypes of flu A viruses. Many different combinations of HA and NA proteins are possible. Each combination is a different subtype. All subtypes of flu A viruses can be found in birds. However, when we talk about ‘bird flu’ viruses, we are referring to those flu A subtypes that continue to occur mainly in birds. They do not usually infect humans, even though we know they can do so. When we talk about ‘human flu viruses’ we are referring to those subtypes that occur widely in humans. There are only three known subtypes of human flu viruses (H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2); and it is likely that some genetic parts of current human flu A viruses came from birds originally. Flu A viruses are constantly changing, and they might adapt over time to infect and spread among humans.
What are the symptoms of bird
flu in humans?
Symptoms of bird flu in humans have ranged from typical flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches) to eye infections, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases (such as acute respiratory distress), and other severe and life-threatening complications. The symptoms of bird flu may depend on which virus caused the infection.
How does bird flu spread?
Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and faeces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with contaminated excretions or surfaces that are contaminated with excretions. It is believed that most cases of bird flu infection in humans have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.
How is bird flu in
Studies suggest that the prescription medicines approved for human flu viruses would work in preventing bird flu infection in humans. However, flu viruses can become resistant to these drugs, so these medications may not always work.
What is the risk to humans
from bird flu?
The risk from bird flu is generally low to most people, because the viruses occur mainly among birds and do not usually infect humans. However, during an outbreak of bird flu among poultry (domesticated chicken, ducks, turkeys), there is a possible risk to people who have contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated with excretions from infected birds. The current outbreak of avian influenza A (H5N1) among poultry in Asia (see below) is an example of a bird flu outbreak that has caused human infections and deaths. In such situations, people should avoid contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces, and should be careful when handling and cooking poultry. For more information about avian influenza and food safety issues, visit the World Health Organisation website www.who.int
What is an avian influenza
A (H5N1) virus?
Influenza A (H5N1) virus – also called ‘H5N1 virus’ – is an influenza A virus subtype that occurs mainly in birds. It was first isolated from birds (terns) in South Africa in 1961. Like all bird flu viruses, H5N1 virus circulates among birds worldwide, is very contagious among birds, and can be deadly.
What is the H5N1 bird flu that
has recently been reported in
Asia and Europe?
Outbreaks of influenza H5N1 occurred among poultry in eight countries in Asia (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam) during late 2003 and early 2004. At that time, more than 100 million birds in the affected countries either died from the disease or were killed in order to try to control the outbreak. By March 2004, the outbreak was reported to be under control. Beginning in late June 2004, however, new deadly outbreaks of influenza H5N1 among poultry were reported by several countries in Asia (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia [first-time reports], Thailand, and Vietnam). It is believed that these outbreaks are ongoing. human infections of influenza A (H5N1) have been reported in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
What is the risk to humans from the H5N1 virus in Asia and Europe?
The H5N1 virus does not usually infect humans. In 1997, however, the first case that spread from a bird to a human, was seen during an outbreak of bird flu in poultry in Hong Kong. The virus caused severe respiratory illness in 18 people, six of whom died. Since that time, there have been other cases of H5N1 infection among humans. Most recently, human cases of H5N1 infection have occurred in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia during large H5N1 outbreaks in poultry. The death rate for these reported cases has been about 50 per cent. Most of these cases occurred from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces; however, it is thought that a few cases of human-to-human spread of H5N1 have occurred.
So far, the spread of H5N1 virus from person-to-person has been rare and spread has not continued beyond one person. However, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that the H5N1 virus could one day be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another. Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population. If the H5N1 virus were able to infect people and spread easily from person-to-person, an “influenza pandemic” (worldwide outbreak of disease) could begin. No one can predict when a pandemic might occur. However, experts from around the world are watching the H5N1 situation in Asia very closely and are preparing for the possibility that the virus may begin to spread more easily and widely from person-to-person.
How is infection with H5N1
virus in humans treated?
The H5N1 virus currently infecting birds in Asia that has caused human illness and death is resistant to amantadine and rimantadine, two antiviral medications commonly used for influenza. Two other antiviral medications, oseltamavir and zanamavir, would probably work to treat flu caused by the H5N1 virus, though studies still need to be done to prove that they work.
Is there a vaccine to protect
humans from H5N1 virus?
There currently is no vaccine to protect humans against the H5N1 virus that is being seen in Asia. However, vaccine development efforts are under way. Research studies to test a vaccine to protect humans against H5N1 virus began in April 2005. (Researchers are also working on a vaccine against H9N2, another bird flu virus subtype).
So should I be worried about travelling to countries with bird
The World Health Organisation points out that the H5N1 virus does not spread easily from birds to humans, but the United Nations body is nonetheless calling for increased vigilance and precautions. As long as you are sensible and do not spend time in areas with high concentrations of birds you should be fine.