Bird Flu Facts

The H5N1 strain of the avian influenza virus, which can be harmful to humans, has spread from Asia to Russia, Romania and Turkey.

Here are key facts about the transmission of the virus:

- H5 and H7 subtypes of the avian influenza virus can be of either low or high pathogenicity. The discovery of an H5 type virus does not necessarily indicate the presence of H5N1.

- High pathogenic H5N1 is particularly deadly to poultry (it can kill an entire flock within hours) but less so for wild ducks and geese, which act as reservoirs for the virus, most of the time show no symptoms and can fly long distances with it.

- All birds are liable to infection from avian flu viruses as are some other animal species such as pigs although this is less common.

- Transmitted via nasal/oral secretions and feces.

- Migrating wildfowl believed to be responsible for the spread of the virus from Asia and Siberia to Romania and Turkey. But trade in live poultry may have played a role in Asia.

- Relatively difficult to transmit from bird to human. Thousands of cases among poultry in Asia have resulted in 120 human cases, of them more than 60 led to death. It must also be noted this is a region where there is often close human contact with live poultry in backyard farms.

- Humans would have to be in prolonged close contact with an infected bird, usually in a confined space, as the virus can be carried in fecal dust or have direct contact with surfaces contaminated by infected droppings or secretions. In Europe, this puts farm workers, veterinarians and those involved in culling infected birds most at risk.

- Whilst the virus can exist in tissue, there is no evidence properly cooked poultry or eggs can be a source of infection. H5 and H7 highly pathogenic viruses are rendered inactive by heat (60 degrees Celsius/30 minutes) and by acid pH.

- In the Asian human cases, exposure to the virus is thought most likely during slaughter, defeathering, butchering and preparation of poultry for cooking.

- In 2003 a milder form of bird flu struck the Netherlands. Although it was a strain not normally dangerous to humans, some cases of conjunctivitus were noted and one veterinarian, who had prolonged close contact with infected birds, died.

- Of the few avian influenza viruses that have crossed the species barrier to humans, H5N1 has caused the largest number of severe diseases and deaths. It follows an unusually aggressive clinical course, with rapid deterioration and high fatality. Pneumonia and multi-organ failure are common.

- Of even greater concern is the fact that the virus, if given enough opportunities, could change into a form that is highly infectious among humans. This could start the much feared flu pandemic.

Sources: World Health Organisation (WHO), World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)

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