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Avian Influenza (Bird Flu): How Much of a Threat?

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The H5N1 influenza virus is often called avian influenza, or bird flu. It is one of a class of viruses designated influenza A. Birds, both wild and domestic, are recognized as natural reservoirs of these viruses. Kurt J. Vandegrift and Peter Daszak of the Wildlife Trust, New York, and colleagues Susanne H. Sokolow and A. Marm Kilpatrick at the University of California provided a review.

The H5N1 designation comes from the proteins hemagglutinin (H) and neuroaminidase (N) in the lipid coating of the virus. There are 16 different H types and nine different N types currently recognized. Influenza A viruses generally cause only mild illness in birds, although some strains can be fatal. These viruses infect both digestive and respiratory cells in birds, so they are shed in feces and respiratory secretions. The viruses evolve quickly because many errors are made in replication, and segments of RNA can be interchanged when two or more virus strains infect the same cell. Most viruses that infect birds do not infect humans, but occasionally a new strain emerges that is able to jump to our species. New virus strains present a threat of epidemics and pandemics, since we have no immunity to them.

Human consumption of chicken has more than tripled since 1960, Vandegrift reported. The increased production of poultry farms has increased the risk of emergence of new influenza strains that can infect humans. Small family farms with free range chickens or ducks are vulnerable to infection by wild birds. Large commercial farms are more protected, but they have high densities of birds that can spread viruses quickly if one becomes infected.

Highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza viruses were first isolated from sick geese in China in 1996, according to a review by Dr. Gabriele Neumann of the University of Wisconsin and colleagues in China and Japan. In 1997, these viruses caused outbreaks of illness in chickens, and were transmitted to humans, resulting in six deaths. No further human cases were reported until 2003.

So far, the H5N1 avian influenza virus has not demonstrated efficient transmission from human to human. Most cases are associated with human contact with live birds. However, the virus has raised concerns because of its high mortality rate. Neumann reported that 391 cases resulted in 247 deaths between 2003 and late 2009.

“These viruses will continue to circulate in avian species and to occasionally transmit to humans,” Neumann noted. “It is therefore of the utmost importance to understand the genetic determinants of pathogenicity, the factors that facilitate transmission to and/or replication in humans, and the molecular changes that may allow H5N1 viruses to transmit among humans.”


1. Vandegrift KJ et al, “Ecology of avian influenza viruses in a changing world”, Ann N Y Acad Sci 2010 May; 1195: 113-128. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20536820

2. Neumann G et al, “H5N1 influenza viruses: Outbreaks and biological properties”, Cell Res. 2010 January; 20(1): 51-61. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19884910

3. World Health Organization updates on avian influenza:

Reviewed August 11, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith

Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her background includes academic and industrial research in materials science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.

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EmpowHER Guest

Companion birds in captivity and parrots are highly unlikely to contract the virus, and there has been no report of a companion bird with avian influenza since 2003. Pigeons do not contract or spread the virus. 84% of affected bird populations are composed of chicken and farm birds, while the 15% is madeup of wild birds according to capture-and-release operations in the 2000s, during the SARs pandemic. The first deadly Canadian case was confirmed on January 3, 2014.

May 24, 2014 - 8:55am
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