Is a bird flu pandemic “inevitable,” as so many health experts believe? Is there a way to protect yourself and your family from this deadly virus? Get the answers to your most urgent questions from the trusted experts at Harvard Medical School. This in-depth report goes behind the alarming headlines to provide the most accurate information based on the latest scientific research and practical advice of Harvard doctors. Find out why a bird disease is so dangerous to humans. Understand how and why it may spread to your area. Learn to recognize the symptoms of bird flu. Find out whether poultry is safe to eat and which wild birds are dangerous. This report also describes what to expect in your community if bird flu strikes and how to prepare for it. Tap into the best information available about bird flu from Harvard’s world-renowned authorities on influenza in this unique online report.
Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publications in collaboration with Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D., Professor of Medicine, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Health Publications, and Raphael Dolin, M.D., Dean for Academic and Clinical Programs and Maxwell Finland Professor of Medicine. 44 pages, $16. (updated: 2008)
Three times in the 20th century, and many times before that, the world has experienced a bird flu pandemic that affected the health of tens of millions of people. The world now faces a possible new bird flu pandemic, prompting the World Health Organization to describe the threat as a “public health crisis.”
Influenza viruses are tiny infectious agents that, like all viruses, can survive only by infecting animals and humans: They cannot live and reproduce unless they infect and get inside an animal’s cells, usually in the respiratory tract
Usually, strains of influenza virus infect only one type of animal. Some strains infect humans, and other strains infect birds. Outbreaks caused by human influenza viruses happen every year, as do outbreaks of influenza in birds caused by bird influenza viruses.
All influenza viruses are highly contagious among the kind of animals that they normally infect. They are spread through saliva, mucus, and feces.
Bird flu refers to an illness in humans caused by an unusual type of influenza virus that normally just infects birds. Most strains of bird influenza virus cannot infect humans; a few strains have been able to infect humans.
Why is there a threat of a new bird flu pandemic? Many experts believe the question is not whether there will be another pandemic, but when, and which strain will it be. Several flu viruses that infect birds have caused illness in a few humans in recent years. One of those viruses, called H5N1, is the focus of greatest concern. Evidence that the H5N1 virus may become a threat began to appear in 1997 in Hong Kong. An influenza virus called H5N1, which had previously infected birds but not humans, suddenly caused a local outbreak in domestic poultry and infected a handful of humans who worked closely with the sick birds. The infection was fatal in some of the birds and humans. Millions of poultry were killed in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading. Since then, the virus has appeared in birds in many countries and in a small number of humans worldwide.
Quick tips if you’re worried about bird flu
Don’t touch wild birds. If you find a dead or injured bird, don’t pick it up. Be careful not to step in bird droppings, pick up feathers, or handle them in any way. Wash hands thoroughly after handling bird baths and bird feeders.
Wash your hands frequently. This is one of the best ways to protect yourself from contracting any form of influenza, including bird flu.
Do the elbow bump. If a bird flu pandemic seems imminent, avoid greeting other people with a handshake or a kiss. Instead, World Health Organization officials advocate the “elbow bump”—a gentle touch of elbows between two people.
Don’t be a strap hanger. On public transportation, loop your arm around a pole or strap rather than holding it with your hand.