Twelve fast facts about avian flu

1. What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza is a contagious bird disease caused by a number of viruses. Birds that can carry and spread an avian influenza virus include poultry (like chickens, turkeys or ducks), wild birds and even pet birds.

2. What's the difference between avian flu and bird flu?

There's no difference. Avian influenza, or avian flu, is also commonly called bird flu. You might hear it referred to this way in media reports or casual conversation. "Avian" comes from the Latin word avis, meaning bird.

3. How is avian flu spread among birds?

Usually the avian flu virus is spread from one bird to another through droppings, saliva, or other bodily secretions. But birds can also become infected with avian flu if they come into contact with contaminated food, water, or farm equipment. The virus can also be spread by footwear, clothing, and vehicles.

4. What is H5N1?

H5N1 is the name given to one of the many known subtypes of avian flu viruses. H5N1 is highly contagious among birds and kills many birds that are infected. H5N1 is also one of the few avian flu subtypes ever to successfully infect humans. Some people who have come into close contact with birds infected by H5N1 have become sick with the virus themselves. The total number of people who have become sick with H5N1 around the world is fairly small, only 826 from 2003 to March 2015. Just over half of these reported cases have resulted in death. All cases of human infection with H5N1 up to May 2010 were in east-to-southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

5. Does H5N1 spread easily among humans?

No. First, people don't catch H5N1 easily from birds. People who are at risk of contracting H5N1 are those who work with poultry that is suffering an outbreak, and who come into contact with the infected birds or areas contaminated with secretions or excretions from the birds. And it's even tougher for the H5N1 virus to spread from person to person. In the few cases where that's happened, the spread has been well contained.

6. Why, then, do public health officials worry about H5N1?

Many flu viruses, including H5N1, can quickly change or adapt. Health officials are concerned that H5N1 will change so that it can spread easily from person to person and infect many people around the world.

7. What is a pandemic?

Think big. A pandemic isn't confined to one community or population. When a disease spreads easily, sweeps quickly around the globe, and affects a large number of people in its path, it's considered to be a pandemic.

8. What are the symptoms of avian flu in birds?

Wild birds can carry and spread the avian flu virus without showing any symptoms. Domestic birds that have been infected by avian flu may look low on energy and clumsy. Their appetite may drop. They may lay fewer or defective eggs and have ruffled feathers. They may cough and sneeze and have diarrhea. Their head and eyes may look swollen. They can die suddenly. Poultry producers who suspect avian flu is brewing among their livestock should contact a veterinarian or government authority right away.

9. Has avian flu been found in domestic birds in Canada?

Yes. It was frequently found in the sixties, when Canadian turkeys were often raised outdoors. That's changed. Today, poultry producers in Canada usually keep their birds behind closed doors and take more precautions against disease. These days it's less common for avian flu to show up among domestic birds in Canada, but outbreaks can still happen.

10. Can my pet get infected with avian flu?

It's possible for pet birds to catch avian flu if they come into contact with infected birds. But that isn't likely to happen if your budgie or parakeet stays indoors. H5N1 has been found in mammals such as pigs, ferrets, cats, and dogs, but only rarely. No human has ever contracted H5N1 from a pet cat or dog. By far, most humans with H5N1 get sick because they were in close contact with infected birds.

11. Is it safe to eat poultry and poultry products?

It's perfectly safe, as long as they're perfectly cooked. All evidence shows that the high heat of cooking is enough to knock the avian flu virus flat in poultry and eggs. Cook poultry until juices run clear and there is no pink meat, and cook eggs until the yolks are no longer runny. Although there are no documented cases of getting infected with the virus by handling raw or undercooked poultry products, it's a good idea to practise safe food handling in the kitchen. Wash your hands before touching poultry and eggs, and keep poultry products separate from other foods. This care in the kitchen will help keep you safe from other contaminants that can make you sick.

12. Is there any vaccine or treatment for avian flu?

There is no vaccine available yet that can prevent someone from becoming infected with avian flu. Several countries are on the case, though, so this may change. Two antiviral medications used to treat seasonal flu, oseltamivir and zanamivir, may also help with avian flu, but more studies are needed to evaluate their effectiveness. Antibiotics can also be a lifesaver if an infected person develops a complication like bacterial pneumonia.

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A brief history of avian flu

Avian flu has been around for a long time in wild birds. It started getting noticed by poultry farmers as far back as the early 1900s.

But the potent flu virus known as H5N1 wasn't discovered until 1997, when it suddenly surfaced on a goose farm in China. H5N1 attracted attention because birds became sick so swiftly, and such a great many died. Since that time, H5N1 has spread to over 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

There are a few direct and indirect ways for H5N1 to spread once it strikes a domestic flock of birds. But how is the virus introduced to commercial poultry in the first place? Often it comes from migratory wild waterfowl such as ducks or geese, who can carry the virus from place to place without getting sick themselves. That's why scientists often call these wild birds "reservoirs" for the virus.

H5N1 in humans

Most of the time, H5N1 has been found only in birds. However, in some regions, especially where humans and domestic birds are in very close contact, people have become sick with H5N1 as well.

Occasionally, a person infected with avian flu has passed it on to someone else. In 2004 in Thailand, a mother caught H5N1 from her sick child. In 2006 in Indonesia, eight family members became ill with H5N1 after just one person in the family came into contact with infected poultry.

Bird outbreaks are not expected to slow down in those regions anytime soon. But while avian flu has turned up in Canada from time to time, to date the H5N1 subtype that's circulating through those overseas countries has not been found here. Our government is taking many precautions in an effort to keep it that way.

The future of avian flu

Although H5N1 hasn't yet evolved into a virus that can spread easily among people, scientists have found a few small differences in newer strains. Some of the H5N1 strains that are circulating right now are becoming better at spreading disease among animals. Some domestic birds may now be carrying the virus without showing any symptoms.

Since viruses are masters at mutating, we can be sure we haven't seen the last of these kinds of shifts.

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Pandemics through the ages

Historians believe that humans have been pounded by flu pandemics at various times for at least four hundred years. But a flu pandemic is a rare event, taking place only 2 or 3 times a century.

On the other hand, every year we experience a seasonal flu epidemic. There's no question it's contagious, passing from person to person. But it certainly doesn't sweep across the planet the way a pandemic does.

In Canada, ordinary seasonal flu is directly responsible for the deaths of between 500 and 1,500 people every year. It also kills many more Canadians who develop complications like pneumonia. Most of these victims are very old or young, or have already weakened immune systems.

A pandemic, on the other hand, is fast and furious. It can sicken or kill normally healthy, working-age adults. Those who get better will take a long time to recover. Often, a second wave of sickness comes a few months after the first, claiming even more victims. A pandemic can have a serious impact on the economy and on social supports like the health care system.

Prominent pandemics of the 1900s

Last century, the world suffered through three separate pandemics:

  • The Spanish flu in 1918-1919 was probably the worst pandemic on record. One or two out of every five people in the world got sick. The Spanish flu killed between 20 and 40 million people around the globe. For unknown reasons, most victims of this virus were in the prime of their lives.
  • By the time the Asian flu first appeared in 1957-1958, modern medicine had advanced considerably. Scientists were able to identify the virus and, to a limited degree, produce a vaccine. Schools played a role in the quick spread of this disease. Most of the dead, though, were elderly.
  • The Hong Kong flu hit in 1968-1969. This virus strain was most likely created when an animal became infected with a human flu and an avian flu at the same time. This was a relatively mild pandemic, killing a mere four million instead of 40 million.

Since 1969, the world's pandemic panic button has not been silent. We've had several scares. The swine flu in 1976 was at first thought to be similar to the powerful Spanish flu, raising alarms. The Russian flu in 1977 moved dangerously quickly through schoolchildren, but it was later found that many adults had already developed immunity.

The newest strain of pandemic influenza is the H1N1 flu virus, commonly known as the swine flu. It emerged in North America in April 2009. However, current cases of H1N1 seem to have virtually disappeared here in Canada, largely due to an aggressive vaccination program initiated by the government. It is still a concern in those countries in the southern hemisphere, so travellers are encouraged to get vaccinated with the H1N1 flu shot if they haven't been already.

Today, the potential of avian flu to spark a pandemic continues to be a concern. Many experts are worried that modern air travel will allow a pandemic flu virus to literally fly around the world fast.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2022. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

How Canada is coping

Keeping avian flu out

Canada has many practices in place to prevent the introduction and spread of avian flu among our domestic fowl. These include:

  • tight controls on the import of birds and poultry products from other countries
  • monitoring domestic and wild birds within Canada
  • helping poultry producers spot and prevent avian flu infections among their livestock
  • launching an awareness campaign to make international travellers aware of avian flu and how they can reduce their chances of carrying the virus into Canada
  • working with other countries to study avian flu and plan control strategies
  • funding public health improvements in Asian countries where avian flu outbreaks are common

Preparing for a pandemic

You may be reassured to know that our federal government's pandemic plan has been held up as a model for other countries by the World Health Organization. Some highlights of Canada's pandemic plan include:

  • strategies that would control the spread of disease in Canada
  • methods of managing the flu in hospitals and nursing homes
  • tactics for keeping critical services in business, even when large numbers of staff are sick
  • working with other countries to make sure Canadians abroad are protected
  • working with other countries to develop a global pandemic plan

Many provinces, territories and municipalities also have a pandemic preparedness plan. Contact your local health authority to find out how they're getting ready.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2022. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

A travel guide

Will you be travelling abroad? As you roam the globe, there are a few measures you can take to reduce the risk of an avian flu infection.

  • Get an up-to-date account of countries experiencing avian flu outbreaks from a public health unit. These regions are generally in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Take extra care when travelling to these countries.
  • Do your best to avoid contact with birds like chickens, ducks, and wild fowl. Stay away from poultry farms or markets where live birds are sold.
  • If you do come into contact with birds that may be infected with avian flu, wash your body and clothing thoroughly, and disinfect your footwear. Remember, the virus can be carried on your shoes and in your hair.
  • Eat poultry and poultry products only if they have been thoroughly cooked first.
  • Get an annual flu shot before you travel. It won't fend off avian flu, but it will help keep your immune system from getting worn down by ordinary flu. You can also talk to your doctor about anti-viral drugs.

After you're back

Upon your return to Canada, there are still more steps you can take to lessen the likelihood of introducing avian flu to a feathery flock.

  • If you're thinking of bringing any birds or poultry products into the country, such as feathers or meats, make sure they are eligible for entry.
  • When entering Canada, be sure to declare any animal products you have brought with you. Failing this, you could be fined or prosecuted.
  • If you've returned from a country with active cases of avian flu, or if you've been in close contact with live birds while abroad, avoid poultry farms for a couple of weeks after you come back to Canada.
  • Wash up! Thoroughly clean your hands, body, and clothing. Don't forget your footwear. Be sure to scrub away any soil or droppings.
  • If you get sick, see your doctor. Be sure to mention that you've been travelling outside the country.

As long as you take these simple and sensible precautions, there's no reason right now to put off your dream vacation. But do be warned: In the event of a flu pandemic, travel may be restricted. And our government's ability to assist the 2.5 million Canadians who are travelling or living abroad at the time may be limited.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2022. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

Protect yourself against a flu pandemic

If we were hit with a flu pandemic, it would spread the same way regular flu circulates. The virus would stow away in tiny droplets that spray from an infected person's cough or sneeze. You could catch the flu simply by standing too close to a sick person who's hacking or sneezing, or by touching a door handle after him. To make matters worse, you can spread flu for one or two days before you even feel sick. That means you can be contagious without realizing it.

Fighting the flu
These tips can help tame the spread of a pandemic flu bug. Better yet, they can all work right now to fight regular seasonal flu, too.

  • Wash your hands well, and often. Experts call handwashing the single most effective way to stop germs in their tracks. Use warm water and soap, and scrub for at least 20 seconds.
  • When you don't have access to soap and water (when you're in the car, for instance), use alcohol-based hand wipes or gel. These products can kill off many germs fast.
  • Get a flu shot every year. Although it won't help in the face of a pandemic virus, it will fight regular seasonal flu, keeping your immune system strong and better able to resist other illnesses. If you are not sure if getting the flu shot is safe for you or a family member (for example, due to specific allergies, pregnancy, chronic disease, or age), speak to your family doctor or pharmacist first.
  • Cover up! Cough or sneeze into your sleeve, or cover your mouth and nose with a tissue. Throw away the tissue and wash your hands.

Getting ready at home
Before a pandemic is a reality, there are a few things you can do to prepare.

  • Jot down the phone numbers of government health information lines. Bookmark government information websites on your computer.
  • Prepare and store an emergency supply kit in your home with items like food and water, medical supplies, flashlights and batteries, and cash.
  • Be prepared for possible closures of schools, daycare centres, and public transportation. You may need to have backup arrangements in place for childcare or travel.

Pandemic pointers

  • If a pandemic is declared, avoid crowds of strangers. This may mean keeping away from malls, public transportation, or spectator events. Viruses can spread easily when numbers of people are in close contact.
  • Listen to advisories and instructions from public health officials. Use the radio, TV, or internet to stay in touch.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2022. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

Do you have avian flu?

Rating your risk
If you live in an urban setting and rarely stray far from home, you have a very low risk of avian flu infection. Almost all human cases of avian flu have come after close contact with live birds, on poultry farms or in regions experiencing avian flu outbreaks. Travel to certain countries may increase your odds of infection, especially if you visit poultry farms or markets selling live birds. Handling feathers or droppings may also expose you to the virus.

But keep in mind that it is still relatively difficult for people to catch avian flu from infected birds. And it is extremely rare for the virus, in its present form, to pass from one person to another. You also won't get avian flu from eating well-cooked poultry or poultry products.

So if you live in downtown Regina and take your vacations in Florida, you are extremely unlikely to become infected with avian flu... even if your favourite meals are fried chicken and scrambled eggs.

Sizing up your symptoms
People who are infected with avian flu often suffer symptoms of normal seasonal flu such as fever, headache, fatigue, coughing, sore throat, and aching muscles.

  • Some have complications like eye infections and pneumonia.
  • Symptoms usually show up one to five days after the person is exposed to the virus.
  • People may get worse faster than they would with regular flu.
  • Respiratory distress can be caused by avian flu and can be life-threatening.

If you develop flu symptoms and have had recent close contact with birds in a high-risk country, you might suspect avian flu. But there is no way to know for sure what kind of flu you have until the virus is sampled and tested at a specialized lab.

Taking action

If you think you have avian flu, it's important to alert the authorities. That's because a critical way to control the spread of this virus is to monitor and investigate all cases of infection in people. So call your doctor if you think you have avian flu, or if you have flu symptoms and recently travelled to a country experiencing a bird flu outbreak.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2022. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: