Bird flu is a form of influenza that is caused by avian influenza type A viruses. These viruses occur naturally in aquatic birds around the world and can infect domestic poultry and other birds. While the virus rarely infects humans, more than 600 cases of bird flu in humans over the past decade have raised some alarms for health experts.
Most cases of bird flu in humans have occurred in Southeast Asia, in countries including Vietnam and Indonesia. Though the disease is rare, it's concerning because it causes a high death rate in humans if not treated.
Bird Flu: What You Need to Know
Instances of bird flu in humans are very rare. Most of the documented cases that have occurred were due to human contact with sick or dead poultry. In extremely rare instances, the disease was passed from one person to another.
When bird flu does occur, it seems to primarily affect children and adults younger than 40. The symptoms of this flu virus vary based on how “pathogenic” (disease-producing) it is. Low-pathogenic bird flu virus often causes flu-like symptoms and a mild respiratory infection. In the rare instances of high-pathogenic bird flu, however, the symptoms can include severe respiratory problems, organ failure, neurological changes, seizures and death.
Another fear related to bird flu is the belief that the virus has become resistant to flu medications. Though it's true that the bird flu virus has shown resistance to two flu drugs, amantadine and rimantadine, two other antiviral medications are effective in treating it: oseltamivir and zanamivir. In addition, getting a flu vaccination each year provides additional protection against the bird flu virus.
Although the chances of catching bird flu are currently very slim, it always pays to be vigilant. Carefully monitor any flu-like symptoms, and talk with your doctor if they persist for more than a couple of days or worsen.
SOURCES: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; American Lung Association.