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Bird flu FAQs

What is bird flu?

Bird flu, or avian influenza, is an infectious disease of birds caused by type-A strains of the influenza virus. Bird flu epidemics have occurred in various places around the world, including in southeast Asia.

The World Health Organisation says bird flu is an example of influenza at the Human-Animal Interface (HAI), or people getting illness from animals or birds. Another example of this is H1N1 swine flu.

There are several types of bird flu, most of which are harmless to humans.

However, 2 types have caused concern in recent years. These are the H5N1 and H7N9 viruses, with the best known example being H5N1 which has proved deadly in people.

How do birds catch avian flu?

Migratory waterfowl – most notably wild ducks and swans – are the natural reservoir of bird flu viruses. It is known that infection can spread from wild fowl to domestic poultry, including chickens and turkeys.

Live bird markets have also played an important role in the development of epidemics.

How do humans get bird flu?

People usually catch bird flu by sustained contact with infected birds or bird droppings.

UK food safety experts say there's no evidence of a risk of people being infected by eating fully cooked chicken, turkey or eggs.

Avian influenza is not an airborne disease and the viruses do not usually spread from human to human.

There have been outbreaks of bird flu in poultry and in other birds in the UK, but no cases of bird flu in humans have been reported in the UK.

What are the symptoms of bird flu in humans?

Humans who catch bird flu from chickens start out with the usual mild flu-like symptoms. With the H5N1 strain, however, symptoms are more severe and may progress to severe respiratory disease that has been fatal in a high percentage of cases.

If a person, or a susceptible animal, gets infected with bird flu and human flu at the same time, the bird and human flu viruses could swap genes. If the new virus is as lethal as bird flu affecting poultry, and as contagious as human flu, it would be very serious.

It is also possible that bird flu could 'learn' to infect humans even if it does not recombine with a human flu virus.

Even if it is a relatively mild new flu virus, it could spread rapidly across the globe. That is because most humans would have no immunity to the new kind of flu. 

Can bird flu be prevented?

The current seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against bird flu.

Official advice to travellers visiting countries where there is an outbreak of the disease is to avoid going to live animal markets or poultry farms.

Other recommendations include:

  • Avoiding contact with surfaces that are contaminated with bird droppings
  • Not to pick up or touch birds (dead or alive)
  • Not to eat or handle undercooked or raw poultry, egg or duck dishes
  • Avoid bringing any live poultry products back to the UK, including feathers
  • To always practise good personal hygiene, such as washing your hands regularly.


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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 09, 2016

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