You might have heard of avian flu, but what is it, exactly? "Avian" (say: ay-vee-yan) means related to birds. Avian flu is an influenza virus that affects mostly birds and sometimes pigs. This isn't the same flu that people normally get.
The main difference between the regular flu and avian flu is the way it is spread. Regular flu spreads from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or picking up the germs other people have left behind. That's why people are always telling you to wash your hands during flu season.
So far, the bird flu has mostly spread only from bird to bird and bird to person — not person to person. Avian flu has mostly infected birds in Asia. When birds get it, they get sick and often die. Some people who handle the birds, such as farmers, have caught avian flu from the animals. This illness has been very serious for about 100 people who were infected, and more than half died from it. That makes it tougher than the regular flu. With the regular flu, most healthy people will recover after a week or two of feeling sick. They usually don't even need special medicine.
Who's at Risk?
Right now, you're not at risk for getting bird flu unless you're a bird or you're a farmer or someone who handles chickens and other birds. And so far, the United States hasn't had any cases of this serious bird flu, called H5N1.
But there's good reason why people everywhere are concerned about bird flu:
- The virus appears to be spreading from birds in Asia to birds in other countries.
- Unlike the regular flu, there's no vaccine yet to protect people from catching it.
- It's possible the virus could change (mutate) and become a kind of germ that could be easily passed from person to person.
Without a vaccine or effective medicine, a lot of people could get sick if the virus changes and starts spreading from person to person. When a lot of people around the world get sick from a fast-spreading illness, it's called a pandemic (say: pan-deh-mik).
What's Being Done?
A lot of people are working to protect people from avian flu. Millions of birds have been destroyed in countries where the infection has struck. That's one way of keeping the virus from spreading. Lots of groups — from the World Health Organization down to local governments — are also talking about how they would handle it if there were an outbreak of bird flu.
But maybe most important, medical researchers are working on a vaccine that would protect people from catching bird flu, even if it started to spread among humans. Those researchers are also figuring out the most helpful medicines to give someone who does catch bird flu.
What Can You Do?
In most places, there's no immediate threat to humans from bird flu. And the best precaution to take is an easy one: Wash your hands. By keeping your hands clean, you also protect yourself from other, far more common illnesses, like colds and the regular flu. Be sure to wash them thoroughly with soap and water, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, or after being around someone who's sick.
And if you have a pet bird, make sure to keep your pet and its food and water inside, away from a place where they could be exposed to any infected birds. Make sure to keep your bird's cage clean and wash your hands after playing with or petting your bird.
Some kids might live in or visit a country that has had an outbreak of bird flu. Those countries include Cambodia, China, Croatia, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. If you're in one of those places, avoid any contact with chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, turkeys, quail, or any wild birds. Stay away from live bird markets, local poultry farms, or any other settings where there might be infected poultry. Avoid touching surfaces that could have been contaminated by bird saliva (spit), feces (poop), or urine (pee).
No matter where you live, kids might be worried about bird flu. Often, what you hear on TV or read in the newspapers focuses on the very worst thing that could happen. Remember that bird flu is not spreading quickly to humans right now and many people are getting prepared in case something changes.
Reviewed by: Joel Klein, MD
Date reviewed: December 2009