Twelve fast facts about avian flu

1. What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza is a contagious bird disease caused by a number of viruses. Birds that can carry and spread an avian influenza virus include poultry (like chickens, turkeys or ducks), wild birds and even pet birds.

2. What's the difference between avian flu and bird flu?

There's no difference. Avian influenza, or avian flu, is also commonly called bird flu. You might hear it referred to this way in media reports or casual conversation. "Avian" comes from the Latin word avis, meaning bird.

3. How is avian flu spread among birds?

Usually the avian flu virus is spread from one bird to another through droppings, saliva, or other bodily secretions. But birds can also become infected with avian flu if they come into contact with contaminated food, water, or farm equipment. The virus can also be spread by footwear, clothing, and vehicles.

4. What is H5N1?

H5N1 is the name given to one of the many known subtypes of avian flu viruses. H5N1 is highly contagious among birds and kills many birds that are infected. H5N1 is also one of the few avian flu subtypes ever to successfully infect humans. Some people who have come into close contact with birds infected by H5N1 have become sick with the virus themselves. The total number of people who have become sick with H5N1 around the world is fairly small, only 826 from 2003 to March 2015. Just over half of these reported cases have resulted in death. All cases of human infection with H5N1 up to May 2010 were in east-to-southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

5. Does H5N1 spread easily among humans?

No. First, people don't catch H5N1 easily from birds. People who are at risk of contracting H5N1 are those who work with poultry that is suffering an outbreak, and who come into contact with the infected birds or areas contaminated with secretions or excretions from the birds. And it's even tougher for the H5N1 virus to spread from person to person. In the few cases where that's happened, the spread has been well contained.

6. Why, then, do public health officials worry about H5N1?

Many flu viruses, including H5N1, can quickly change or adapt. Health officials are concerned that H5N1 will change so that it can spread easily from person to person and infect many people around the world.

7. What is a pandemic?

Think big. A pandemic isn't confined to one community or population. When a disease spreads easily, sweeps quickly around the globe, and affects a large number of people in its path, it's considered to be a pandemic.

8. What are the symptoms of avian flu in birds?

Wild birds can carry and spread the avian flu virus without showing any symptoms. Domestic birds that have been infected by avian flu may look low on energy and clumsy. Their appetite may drop. They may lay fewer or defective eggs and have ruffled feathers. They may cough and sneeze and have diarrhea. Their head and eyes may look swollen. They can die suddenly. Poultry producers who suspect avian flu is brewing among their livestock should contact a veterinarian or government authority right away.

9. Has avian flu been found in domestic birds in Canada?

Yes. It was frequently found in the sixties, when Canadian turkeys were often raised outdoors. That's changed. Today, poultry producers in Canada usually keep their birds behind closed doors and take more precautions against disease. These days it's less common for avian flu to show up among domestic birds in Canada, but outbreaks can still happen.

10. Can my pet get infected with avian flu?

It's possible for pet birds to catch avian flu if they come into contact with infected birds. But that isn't likely to happen if your budgie or parakeet stays indoors. H5N1 has been found in mammals such as pigs, ferrets, cats, and dogs, but only rarely. No human has ever contracted H5N1 from a pet cat or dog. By far, most humans with H5N1 get sick because they were in close contact with infected birds.

11. Is it safe to eat poultry and poultry products?

It's perfectly safe, as long as they're perfectly cooked. All evidence shows that the high heat of cooking is enough to knock the avian flu virus flat in poultry and eggs. Cook poultry until juices run clear and there is no pink meat, and cook eggs until the yolks are no longer runny. Although there are no documented cases of getting infected with the virus by handling raw or undercooked poultry products, it's a good idea to practise safe food handling in the kitchen. Wash your hands before touching poultry and eggs, and keep poultry products separate from other foods. This care in the kitchen will help keep you safe from other contaminants that can make you sick.

12. Is there any vaccine or treatment for avian flu?

There is no vaccine available yet that can prevent someone from becoming infected with avian flu. Several countries are on the case, though, so this may change. Two antiviral medications used to treat seasonal flu, oseltamivir and zanamivir, may also help with avian flu, but more studies are needed to evaluate their effectiveness. Antibiotics can also be a lifesaver if an infected person develops a complication like bacterial pneumonia.

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