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Avian influenza is a strain of influenza that infects birds. It is often called the bird flu. In Asia, there have been cases of avian influenza that have infected humans.

To date there have been few cases of human illness. However, many infected patients have died. There is also concern that the virus could become more efficient at infecting humans. Some health experts are concerned that this could eventually cause a pandemic of this disease. A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak.

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Viruses belonging to the A type of influenza viruses cause avian influenza. Sometimes a virus can mutate. These mutations can allow a bird virus to infect pigs or humans. Humans who have close contact with infected birds or pigs can then contract the virus. There is also concern that the virus can mutate to allow it to pass between humans.

The virus is not contracted through eating poultry, eggs, or pork products. It is currently passed through contact with an infected animal’s:

  • Saliva
  • Nasal secretions
  • Droppings

Risk Factors

The following factors increase your chances of developing avian influenza:

  • Close contact with infected animals, such as:
    • Ducks
    • Geese
    • Chickens
    • Turkeys
    • Pigs
  • Recent travel to an area known to have cases of avian influenza, such as:
    • Thailand
    • Hong Kong
    • China
    • Vietnam
    • Cambodia
    • Malaysia
    • Indonesia
    • South Korea
    • Laos
    • The Netherlands


If you have any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to avian flu. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions.

In more severe cases, pneumonia (worsening fever and cough along with shortness of breath), problems with blood clotting, and organ failure (involving kidney, liver, lungs, and heart) can occur.


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The virus can be identified through a blood test. Samples are also usually sent to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). There the specific strain of the virus can be identified.


Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Research is still being done to find an antiviral agent that works against the virus. Some current agents are ineffective against the virus. Antiviral agents that appear effective against the avian flu include:

  • Zanamivir (Relenza)
  • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)—This is the preferred medication to treat avian flu.
    • Oseltamivir (and perhaps zanamivir) may increase the risk of self-injury and confusion shortly after taking, especially in children. Children should be closely monitored for signs of unusual behavior.

These medications do not cure the flu. They may help relieve symptoms and decrease the duration of the illness. They must be taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms.


To help reduce your chances of getting avian influenza, take the following steps:

  • Avoid traveling to areas where there are avian influenza outbreaks. For the latest travel restrictions, visit the CDC's Traveler's Health page .
  • Avoid contact with potentially infected poultry or swine. This includes farms or open air markets.
  • Avoid eating raw eggs. Egg shells may be contaminated with bird droppings.
  • Raw poultry could be contaminated with bird droppings, saliva, or mucus. Cook poultry thoroughly. Carefully clean your hands. Clean all cooking surfaces, utensils, and cutting boards. Cooked poultry will not transmit the avian influenza virus.
  • Use excellent hand washing techniques if you might be in an area where exposure to the avian influenza virus is possible
  • Use a hand sanitizer if clean water is not available for washing.

In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first US vaccine to protect against H5N1 in adults aged 18-64. The government has stored this vaccine in its Strategic National Stockpile in case of an emergency.