Avian flu, also known as “bird flu,” is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. Normally, wild birds across the globe are carriers of a harmless form of these viruses, which don’t sicken them. But recently, a new strain of the virus, H5N1 (named for the proteins on the surface of the virus), has killed birds of more than 80 wild species and flocks of domestic fowl, in Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Human fatality rate high

Some human cases, primarily in Asia, have developed from contact with these birds, or their saliva or feces. More than half of the human victims have died after suffering fever, cough, muscle aches, and pneumonia. The disease has not appeared in the United States in either humans or birds.

At this time, avian flu is not easily transmitted from human to human, although experts are considering whether prolonged and intimate contact with a sick person may indeed make a caregiver vulnerable, since family clusters have been found in Indonesia. Still, human cases are rare and have been confirmed only in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.

Danger of a pandemic

But because viruses often mutate, it is feared that H5N1 may some day turn into one that will quickly spread from human to human, perhaps around the globe. Such a pandemic is expected to be widespread and deadly.

Medical researchers are working on preparing a vaccine, but because the exact nature and virulence of the virus that may mutate into the human-to-human form isn’t known, the effectiveness of a vaccine prepared in advance isn’t known either. Typically, it takes six months to develop a vaccine, once the pathogen is known.

Preparations underway

Many international agencies, as well as the federal government, local and state governments, businesses, schools, and hospitals are readying plans to deal with the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. The University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are making plans as well. These plans primarily deal with how to efficiently treat the sick and limit exposure to the well.

In this country at this time, the only precautions to take are to observe wildlife from a distance and avoid touching wildlife. If contact occurs, wash hands with soap and water before you rub your eyes, eat, drink, or smoke.

Travel precautions

Although there are no international travel restrictions as a result of avian flu, public health officials urge travelers to higher-risk areas of the world to avoid contact with live animal markets and poultry farms, and any free-ranging or caged poultry. In addition, visitors to affected areas should not consume under-cooked poultry and egg products.

Upon their return, travelers should monitor their health for 10 days. If illness is present (including fever plus cough, sore throat, or trouble breathing) during the 10-day period, a doctor should be consulted and informed of symptoms, location of travel, and whether there was direct contact with poultry or close contact with a severely ill person.

Seasonal flu warnings

While health officials are watching the course of avian flu and making plans to deal with it, even though it may not happen, they are also preparing for the yearly occurrence of seasonal flu, usually between December and May.

Seasonal flu can also cause serious illness and death in the young, the elderly, or those with impaired resistance. But, in contrast to avian flu, vaccines do exist, and are offered at campus sites.

Seasonal flu is transmitted by coughing and sneezing or other close contact, or from contact with an object contaminated by flu viruses, which can live on surfaces for as long as two hours. Health officials are advising that everyone get a flu shot this year and be meticulous about hand-washing.