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What You Need to Know about Bird Flu

separator Bird flu headlines appear in the news every day, but you probably are most interested in a few basic things, like

  • How likely is bird flu to affect humans in this country?
  • Is there any way I can prevent it if it does come here?
  • How many people is it likely to affect?
  • What are the signs that a pandemic is about to start?
  • What are the symptoms?

Viruses that pass from one species to another, such as from birds to humans, often begin in Asia. That’s because Asia is densely populated, and many of the people there are in frequent contact with live birds, such as chickens. In America, many of us come in contact with a chicken only when we’re about to eat it. 

So far, there are no known cases in which bird flu has passed from one human to another. Humans that have contracted the disease have gotten it from eating the meat of infected birds. When a virus goes from a bird to a human, and then from that human to many other humans, you have the beginning of what’s called a “pandemic.” 

“How likely is bird flu to affect humans in this country?”
Nobody can answer that question at this point, but may experts believe that the fear that’s been circulating about bird flu is premature. In order for a strain of flu to become a pandemic, three things have to happen:

1. There must be a new substrain of the virus.

2.  It has to spread to humans and cause serious illness.

3. It has to spread easily.

The strain of bird flu that’s spreading now in Asia and parts of Europe is called H5N1. It has taken the first two steps above. In the past two years, only 160 people in all of Asia have been infect with bird flu. Of those, 67 have died, according to the World Health Association. In other words, this virus, so far, does not spread easily between people.

On the other hand, pandemics do occur, and even if the H5N1 doesn’t become a pandemic, it’s likely that at some point in the future, some strain of flu virus will become a pandemic.

Is there any way I can prevent it if it does come here? And how is it treated? 
Currently, there’s no vaccine that works against a pandemic. Prototypes against H5N1 are being studied, however.

The main treatment available right now is a drug called Tamiflu. The hope is that Tamiflu will help relieve symptoms and reduce the spread of the virus. The truth is that nobody knows for sure whether Tamiflu will be effective against bird flu.

How many people is it likely to affect? 
There’s no way to predict how severe or wide-reaching a pandemic of bird flu would be. Even if a pandemic is mild, it could cause an estimated 2 million to 7.4 million deaths worldwide.

What are the signs that a pandemic is about to start?
The most important signal occurs when clusters of people with symptoms of influenza are detected. This clustering suggests that human-to-human contact is taking place. Another sign would be when health workers caring for these sick people become sick themselves. 

What are the symptoms of bird flu?

  • Bird flu symptoms can include
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle aches
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pneumonia (usually as a secondary infection from original symptoms)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The World Health Organization.
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