Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” has received much media attention recently, and some reports say the illness could reach the United States in as little as a few weeks. However, there are some things Arkansans can do to protect themselves and their loved ones. First, learn what the facts are and how you may be affected.
“Avian influenza is an infection caused by viruses in birds,” explains Dr. Russ Kennedy, health and aging specialist with the U of A Cooperative Extension Service. “These viruses occur naturally in birds, and although wild birds may carry the infection in their intestines, they do not generally get sick and die from it. However, domesticated birds like chickens, turkeys and ducks can contract the infection and die from it.”
The first cases of bird flu affecting human beings were reported in the 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control, bird flu usually does not affect humans, but the cases in which humans have been involved were thought to be a result of people having direct contact with infected poultry or surfaces contaminated with the virus. So far, people infected with avian influenza have not passed the virus on to other humans, and no live poultry is being imported into the U.S. from countries affected by avian influenza.
“This type of influenza has the ability to change and may spread easily between people though,” Dr. Kennedy notes. “It is crucial that we Arkansans and Americans monitor for human infection so we don’t transmit any influenza illnesses from one person to another.”
The current risk of people contracting bird flu is low. The outbreak of one avian influenza in particular, H5N1, in Asia and Europe has affected some people; however, the flu has a limited spread from person to person, and in the rare instance when this has happened, the virus has not spread beyond one person.
“The H5N1 strain of bird flu has not occurred in the U.S. yet,” Dr. Kennedy said. “People who may be affected, however, are travelers returning from countries dealing with avian influenza outbreaks, and the Centers for Disease Control has issued travel advisories regarding bird flu. The H5N1 strain has not, as yet, acquired the ability to spread readily from human to human, and vaccines are being researched and tested now.”
According to the World Health Organization, H5N1 has infected almost 120 people in four countries and killed more than 60 to date. It is not known how many people may have been affected by this flu without dying. What is known is health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and local health departments monitor cases of influenza affecting humans every year to limit the spread within our communities.
Symptoms of bird flu in humans are similar to other flu viruses, such as fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches. Other symptoms noted with bird flu in people include eye infections, pneumonia and respiratory problems. If you experience any of these symptoms -- regardless of what you may think the cause of them are -- see your healthcare provider immediately.
“The main thing to remember is to be vigilant and practice common sense when it comes to keeping yourself and your family healthy,” Dr. Kennedy says. “If you or someone you love is not feeling well, seek care immediately and follow the professional’s instructions to the letter.”
For more information, visit extension's Website, uaex.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.