Avian/Bird Flu Pandemic
Avian Influenza in Birds
Wild birds worldwide carry avian influenza viruses in their intestines, but
usually do not get sick from them. Avian influenza is very contagious among
birds and can make some domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks, and
turkeys, very sick and kill them.
Infected birds shed influenza virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and
feces. Domesticated birds may become infected with avian influenza virus through
direct contact with infected waterfowl or other infected poultry, or through
contact with surfaces (such as dirt or cages) or materials (such as water or
feed) that have been contaminated with the virus.
Avian influenza infection in domestic poultry causes two main forms of
disease that are distinguished by low and high extremes of virulence. The
"low pathogenic" form may go undetected and usually causes only mild symptoms
(such as ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production). However, the highly
pathogenic form spreads more rapidly through flocks of poultry. This form may
cause disease that affects multiple internal organs and has a mortality rate
that can reach 90-100%, often within 48 hours. The H5N1 virus is highly
Human Infection with Avian Influenza Viruses
"Human influenza virus" usually refers to those subtypes that spread widely
among humans. There are only three known A subtypes of influenza viruses (H1N1,
H1N2, and H3N2) currently circulating among humans. It is likely that some
genetic parts of current human influenza A viruses originally came from birds.
Influenza A viruses are constantly changing, and other strains might adapt over
time to infect and spread among humans.
The risk from avian influenza is generally low to most people, because the
viruses do not usually infect humans. H5N1 is one of the few avian influenza
viruses to have crossed the species barrier to infect humans, and it is the
most deadly of those that have crossed the barrier.
Most cases of H5N1 influenza infection in humans have resulted from contact
with infected poultry (e.g., domesticated chicken, ducks, and turkeys) or
surfaces contaminated with secretion/excretions from infected birds.
So far, the spread of H5N1 virus from person to person has been limited and
has not continued beyond one person. Nonetheless, because all influenza viruses
have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that H5N1 virus one day
could be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to
In the current outbreaks in Asia, Europe, and Africa, more than half of those
infected with the H5N1 virus have died. Most cases have occurred in previously
healthy children and young adults. However, it is possible that the only cases
currently being reported are those in the most severely ill people, and that the
full range of illness caused by the H5N1 virus has not yet been defined.
Symptoms of avian influenza in humans have ranged from typical human
influenza-like symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, sore throat, and muscle aches) to
eye infections, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases (such as acute
respiratory distress), and other severe and life-threatening complications.
The symptoms of avian influenza may depend on which virus caused the
Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no
immune protection against them in the human population. If H5N1 virus were to
gain the capacity to spread easily from person to person, a pandemic (worldwide
outbreak of disease) could begin. No one can predict when a pandemic might
occur. However, experts from around the world are watching the H5N1 situation
very closely and are preparing for the possibility that the virus may begin to
spread more easily and widely from person to person.
For more information about human infection, see
Vaccination and Treatment for H5N1 Virus in Humans
There currently is no commercially available vaccine to protect humans
against the H5N1 virus that is being seen in Asia, Europe, and Africa. A
pandemic vaccine cannot be produced until a new pandemic influenza virus
emerges and is identified.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through its National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is addressing the problem
in a number of ways. These include the development of pre-pandemic vaccines
based on current lethal strains of H5N1, collaboration with industry to
increase the nation's vaccine production capacity, and seeking ways to expand
or extend the existing supply. We are also doing research in the development
of new types of influenza vaccines.
Studies done in laboratories suggest that some of the prescription medicines
approved in the United States for human influenza viruses should work in
treating avian influenza infection in humans. However, influenza viruses can
become resistant to these drugs, so these medications may not always work.
Additional studies are needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of these
The H5N1 virus that has caused human illness and death in Asia is resistant
to amantadine and rimantadine, two antiviral medications commonly used for
influenza. Two other antiviral medications, oseltamavir and zanamavir, would
probably work to treat influenza caused by H5N1 virus, but additional studies
still need to be done to demonstrate their effectiveness.
For more information about H5N1 drug and vaccine development, see
What Would be the Impact of a Pandemic?
A pandemic may come and go in waves, each of which can last for six to eight
An especially severe influenza pandemic could lead to high levels of illness,
death, social disruption, and economic loss. Everyday life would be disrupted
because so many people in so many places could become seriously ill at the same
time. Impacts can range from school and business closings to the interruption
of basic services such as public transportation and food delivery.
A substantial percentage of the world's population will require some form of
medical care. Health care facilities could be overwhelmed, creating a shortage
of hospital staff, beds, ventilators, and other supplies. Surge capacity at
non-traditional sites such as schools may need to be created to cope with
The need for vaccine is likely to outstrip supply and the supply of antiviral
drugs is also likely to be inadequate early in a pandemic. Difficult decisions
would need to be made regarding who gets antiviral drugs and vaccines.
Death rates are determined by four factors: the number of people who become
infected, the virulence of the virus, the underlying characteristics and
vulnerability of affected populations, and the availability and effectiveness
of preventive measures.
How Are We Preparing?
The United States has been working closely with other countries and the World
Health Organization (WHO) to strengthen systems to detect outbreaks of influenza
that might cause a pandemic. See http://www.pandemicflu.gov/global/
The effects of a pandemic can be lessened if preparations are made ahead of
time. Planning and preparation information and checklists are being prepared for
various sectors of society, including information for individuals and families.
HHS and other federal agencies are providing funding, advice, and other
support to your state to assist with pandemic planning and preparation.
Information on state/federal planning and cooperation, including links to
state pandemic plans, is available on this site. See
The federal government will provide up-to-date information and guidance to
the public through the public media and this web site should an influenza
Stages of a Pandemic
The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a global influenza
preparedness plan, see at:
which defines the stages of a pandemic, outlines the role of WHO, and makes
recommendations for national measures before and during a pandemic.
Flu Terms Defined
Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted
person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
Avian (or bird) flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally
among wild birds. The H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be
transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine
Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or
pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity,
the disease can spread easily from person to person. Currently, there is
no pandemic flu.
What You Can Do
- Stay home when sick
- Practice respiratory and hand hygiene
- Cover your cough
- Wash hands regularly and use alcohol hand gel. Proper
washing of hands consist of at least 20 seconds of rubbing.
- Avoid touching eyes, nose, mouth
- Implement "social distancing" measures
- At point of outbreak, use N95 facial masks
- Be prepared for pandemic planning