The avian flu, more commonly known as the bird flu, is a respiratory infection caused by the H5N1 virus. The virus is common among wild birds and usually does not cause any symptoms. But, it can be deadly in domesticated poultry, such as chicken or turkeys.
Since 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, the avian flu has infected people in over 15 countries in Asia, Europe, the Near East, the Pacific, and Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 637 confirmed cases and 378 deaths occurred between 2003-2013. People at the greatest risk are those who have direct contact with sick or dead birds or with surfaces contaminated by the virus. There have been a few cases, though, where the virus spread between people.
Health officials and researchers are concerned that the virus could reach new areas, especially with H5N1 infecting migratory birds. An even greater threat is that the virus could mutate into a more contagious form, with the ability to spread more easily from birds to people and between people.
What’s the Current Status of the H5N1 Vaccine?
Antibodies are the body’s natural defense against infection. Vaccines work by triggering the body to make specific antibodies to a particular virus. If a person who has been vaccinated becomes infected with the virus, the antibodies quickly destroy it.
Research studies in humans began in 2005 to evaluate vaccines to prevent avian flu. In 2007, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first US vaccine to protect against a strain of the virus. The vaccine is intended for people aged 18-64 who have an increased risk of exposure to H5N1. Adults receive a series of 2 shots that are given month apart. The vaccine, though, is not available to the general public. The US government purchased it for the Strategic National Stockpile, where large supplies of medications are stored in case of a national emergency.
What Are the Other Options in Case of an Outbreak?
While researchers work toward protecting the population from H5N1, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming sick. For example, avoiding direct and indirect contact with wild and domestic birds and making sure all poultry foods are thoroughly cooked are just two ways you can lower your chance of contracting the virus.
Currently, antiviral medications are used to treat avian flu. In some groups of people with moderate or high risk for developing the flu, antiviral medication can also be used as a preventive measure. There have been cases where the flu viruses were resistant to antiviral medications.
To help reduce spreading the flu, take these steps:
- Wash your hands often, especially after coming in contact with someone who is sick.
- Cover your mouth and nose with tissue or your shirt sleeve at your elbow when sneezing or coughing.
- Take proper care of yourself and try to avoid others when you are sick.
If you have any questions about avian flu, or seasonal flu vaccines for you and your family, talk to your doctor.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 07/2015 -
- Update Date: 10/02/2013 -