Avian Flu: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

Avian Flu or what is commonly known as bird flu is a very common infection that affects hundreds of people each year in a particular season. However, Avian Flu can be treated very effectively, but if neglected it could lead to death.

What is Avian Flu?

The viral influenza that spreads among birds and infects humans and other animals is called avian flu (bird flu).

There are many different viruses that cause bird flu; most of them are ineffective on humans. However, the two types that have a serious impact are:

  • H5N1- Since1997
  • H7N9-Since2013

These viruses however don’t infect people easily and usually are not transfused from human to human; yet, several people are affected globally, causing a number of deaths. Other viruses, such as H7N7 and H9N2 have also affected people, but haven’t caused serious illness.

Avian Flu: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention - Infographic

Biology of the Flu Virus

The flu viruses contain two surface proteins which can be identified and strike at by the immune system. These proteins are hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins. The H5N1 influenza virus contains type 5 hemagglutinin and type 1 neuraminidase.

Symptoms of Avian Flu

Human contagion with H5N1 is rare. A direct connection with sick or dead poultry can lead to avian flu in humans. Countries in Asia, Europe, the Near East and Africa are known to refuge the virus. There is no evidence that this virus can be easily transfused among people. The symptoms of Avian Flu (bird flu) may resemble to the other types of flu, such as:

Symptoms of Avian Flu

The incubation period of the symptoms of Avian Flu is usually three to five days, it may exceed to seven days based on the type of infection. The patient may get conjunctivitis. Avian Flu symptoms may start out as normal flu-like symptoms in children and even animals like dogs, cats and other mammals. This can aggravate to become a severe respiratory disease that would progress to ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and fatal viral pneumonia. Avian Flu is much more lethal than influenza in humans.

Complications that Avian Flu could lead to:

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is a viral infection which is associated with a wide range of ailment such as:

  • Severe respiratory disorders like shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, viral pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, respiratory failure.
  • Multi-organ diseases that coincide with nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting etc.
  • Neurologic changes such as altered mental status, seizures
  • More than half of people who had bird flu have died according to the records that have been kept since 1997.

Causes of Avian Flu:

Hong Kong in1997 was found to be the first nation to get affected by the avian flu- as delineated by The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI, USA). The outburst was amalgamated to dealing with infected poultry (NCBI, 2011). Later, avian influenza was found in Europe, Asia, Africa, Indonesia, the Pacific, Vietnam and the near East. More than 60 percent of people died due to the ailment.

H5N1 occurs innately in wild waterfowl, and easily transmitted into domestic poultry like chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. The disease is transfused to humans through direct contact with an infected birds nasal secretions, feces or secretions from the mouth or eyes. Infected droppings or secretions can adulterate dust, soil, water and anything associated to it. The virus can also be carried on the feet and bodies of animals. The saliva and feces of the infected poultry can spread the virus till 10 days. The infections can easily spread in open-air markets, as eggs and birds are sold in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

The human-to-human transmission of the Avian Flu virus is rare. However, the experts are concerned about a fatal pandemic that could occur if the highly contagion viruses H5N1, H7N9 mutate to allow them to be human-to-human transfused. Consuming a well cooked poultry or eggs from infected birds does not transmit the bird flu, the yolks and whites should be firm, eggs should never be served runny. Poultry meat is safe if it is cooked to an internal temperature of 165º F.

Diagnosis of Avian Flu:

The doctor will diagnose Avian Flu if the person is asymptomatic to the virus. The patient will have to provide the following information to the doctor, if he has:

  • Traveled to an area infected by Avian Flu or Bird Flu
  • Been as close as one meter to domestic or wild birds- alive or dead.
  • Got in contact; touching or speaking in less distance with someone who has a respiratory ailment.
  • Got in contact with anyone who had a sudden death and belonged to an area that had an outburst of Avian Flu.

The following tests shall be carried out to check the infection of Avian Flu or Bird Flu:

  • Chest X-ray
  • Auscultation (detects abnormal breath sounds)
  • RT- PCR- a reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction detects Nasopharyngeal Virus
  • Nasopharyngeal culture
  • Throat virus detection by R
  • T-PCR
  • WBC differential count
  • Blood tests
  • Gram stain (a process that identifies a cause of bacterial infection)

If the results of the laboratory tests and chest X-rays are found to be normal, it is unlikely that the patient has Avian Flu.

Treatment of Avian Flu:

People with surmised symptoms of Avian Flu will be made to stay at home or will be kept isolated in the hospital for as long as 10 days.

The main treatment recommendations for Avian Flu or Bird Flu would be:

  • To rest
  • To drink fluids and eat healthily
  • Medications like paracetamol or aspirin (should not be taken by children younger than 16 years) to treat pain and fever associated with Avian Flu or Bird Flu
  • Some people who have Avian Flu or Bird Flu may need a ventilator to help them breathe better.
  • Few of the patients suffering from Avian Flu or Bird Flu may need dialysis to help the kidneys work better. More than half of the time, Avian Flu or Bird Flu leads to death.
  • Bacterial pneumonia may advance in critical cases and can be cured by regular antibiotics.

Antiviral Medication for Avian Flu or Bird Flu

Evidence suggests that obseltamivir may improve the prospects of survival by reducing the viral replication duration. Zanamivir (Relenza) and Peramivir (Actrapid) may also help to reduce the severity of the condition, increasing the chances of survival in Avian Flu cases. These medications are more effective when given within 48 hours from the onset of symptoms of Avian Flu. These medications can be taken as a preventative measure by those who are frequently exposed to the virus- like patient’s family or people who were associated with infected birds. In these cases medication should begin immediately after exposure and should continue for 7 to 10 days.

Preventing Avian flu

Preventing the avian flu to spread is very difficult as the birds carry this virus. However, there are some precautions that can reduce chances of developing a viral infection like Avian Flu or Bird Flu.

General Precautions

To reduce the risk of developing and transmitting viral infections like Avian Flu or Bird Flu, one should ensure to:

  • Wash their hands regularly and maintain hygiene
  • Avoid public places if they are sick
  • Practice safe food handling practices: with all meat, including poultry, when handling or cooking. Cooking kills the Avian Flu or Bird Flu virus strains in poultry.
  • Destroy sick birds and vaccinate healthy ones.
  • Get Vaccinations – Seasonal flu vaccine or pneumococcal vaccination – if he is in a higher-risk group, if one may have a long-term illness such as asthma or is 65 years or over.
  • Avoid getting contact with birds especially the sick or dead ones.
  • Wash hands thoroughly if one gets in touch with the birds or its droppings accidentally.

CDC-The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends circumventing traveling to countries infected by H5N1. However, if a person is visiting a place that has H5N1 outburst one should take the following precautions:

  • Avoid visits to open bird markets.
  • If one is working with birds, one should use special breathing masks and protective clothing.
  • Avoid unprocessed meat as it reduces the risk of infection by avian flu and other food born diseases.

Maintaining the precautions would surely prevent from getting infected with the virus. However, if you or your near ones experience any of the symptoms of Avian Flu or Bird Flu, do seek the immediate medical attention, without delay.

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:April 4, 2019

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