Avian Influenza
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Avian Influenza

(Bird Flu)

En Español (Spanish Version)


Avian influenza is a strain of influenza (sometimes called “the flu”) that infects birds. In particular, ducks, geese, and chickens may become infected with avian influenza. 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 because of the type of infection. In addition, there is concern in the medical profession that the virus could become more efficient at infecting humans. Some health experts are concerned that this could eventually cause a pandemic (massive worldwide outbreak) of this disease.

Virus Attacking Cell


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Viruses belonging to the “A” type of influenza viruses cause avian influenza. Usually, the avian influenza virus only infects birds. However, sometimes the virus can mutate (undergo some chemical and genetic changes). These mutations can allow it 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 sufficiently to allow it to be passed between humans.

The virus is not contracted through eating poultry, eggs, or pork products. It is currently passed through contact with the saliva, nasal secretions, or droppings of infected animals.

Risk Factors

The following factors increase your chances of developing avian influenza. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:

  • 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 experience any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to avian influenza. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you experience any one of them, see your physician. Symptoms may include:

  • Flu symptoms such as:
  • Eye infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Simultaneous failure of organs, such as kidney, liver, lungs, and heart
  • Problems with blood clotting


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The types of blood tests available at most clinics and hospitals will be able to identify the presence of an influenza virus, but most laboratories do not have the equipment necessary to specifically identify the virus that causes avian influenza. Samples are usually sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia where the avian influenza virus can be identified.


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Research is still being done to find an antiviral agent that works against the virus that causes avian influenza. Some antiviral agents (amantadine and rimantadine) are ineffective against the virus. Thus far, it appears that oseltamivir and zanamivir may work against the avian flu virus.


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

  • Avoid traveling to areas where there are avian influenza outbreaks.
  • Avoid contact with potentially infected poultry or swine, such as at farms or open-air markets.
  • Because egg shells may be contaminated with bird droppings, avoid eating raw eggs.
  • Cooked poultry will not transmit the avian influenza virus, but raw poultry could be contaminated with bird droppings, saliva, or mucus. Cook poultry thoroughly, and carefully clean your hands and all cooking surfaces, utensils, and cutting boards.
  • Use excellent handwashing 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.


Centers for Disease Control

World Health Organization


Canadian Medical Association Journal

Health Canada


Cohen J, Powderly WG. Infectious Diseases . 2nd ed. NY: Elsevier; 2004.

Weir E, Wong T, Gemmill T. Avian influenza outbreak: update. CMAJ . Mar 2, 2004; 170:785-786.

Last reviewed January 2008 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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