A global outbreak of disease – that is what many people think when they hear the words “bird flu.” But is it really the next pandemic or just “fowl” play? Properly named “avian influenza,” this virus has spurred global awareness and growing concerns about the possibility of the virus changing into a form that passes efficiently from person-to-person.
“This specific strain of ‘bird flu’ – also known as H5N1 – has proven devastating to domestic poultry wherever it’s been identified,” said Lt. Col. Carol Fisher, U.S. Air Forces in Europe Command Public Health officer. “And although millions of birds have died from this virus, human cases are still rare.”
Colonel Fisher noted that the human cases identified with this strain have primarily been found where people have had close interaction with sick or dead birds that were also infected with the same strain.
Currently, the bird flu virus does not have the ability to spread effectively from human-to-human. Nevertheless, proper handling of raw poultry and basic personal hygiene can effectively protect a person.
“Studies have found that simple steps, like frequent hand washing with soap and water and good respiratory etiquette, can effectively protect a person from many infections,” said the colonel.
Bird flu can be contracted through the respiratory system and possibly orally (eating raw or undercooked poultry or poultry products). It is primarily spread by direct contact with saliva, nasal secretions and feces of infected birds. The colonel said that if a pandemic strain of influenza is identified, a vaccine will take from 6 to 9 months to be developed.
However, there are drugs that can help reduce complications of the human infection. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu can be used to ease symptoms of the virus, if given within 48 hours of initial symptoms.
Outbreaks of bird flu have occurred recently among poultry in a number of countries in Asia, as well as several countries within USAFE, including Germany, France, Romania, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece.
Human infections with the virus have been reported in Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Iraq. These cases have primarily resulted from direct contact with infected poultry or surfaces contaminated with their feces. Building good body resistance also goes a long way in preventing any type of influenza. This can be achieved through a balanced diet, adequate rest, regular exercise, good personal hygiene and not smoking.
“It’s important that we remember to not only practice good personal hygiene, but that we remain aware of the current situation and use proper food-handling techniques when preparing any raw meat,” she said. “These two practices are always important.”
For more information on avian influenza go to www.pandemicflu.gov. (Portions of this story were contributed by Staff Sgt. Melissa Koskovich, U.S. Central Command Air Forces – Forward Public Affairs)