Avian influenza – better known as “bird flu” – is a highly pathogenic strain of the common influenza that has self-mutated to live in birds as hosts. It is incredibly infectious in birds and can wipe out an entire flock of birds in just over a day. It is especially dangerous to birds in countries in Asia due to low hygienic standards and the keeping of birds in close quarters.
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In recent years, bird flu – known as the H5N1 strain of the flu – has spread to the Middle East and Europe, due to both the legal and illegal importation of infected bird stock. In the United States, imported food product is monitored incredibly closely by the government, so there have been no reported cases of bird flu in the U.S., except for one case in Texas in 2004 that was quickly exterminated. In total, there have been 650 confirmed cases in people, mostly in the countries of Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Egypt.
Bird flu is contracted by coming into close contact with infected birds, dead birds, infected surfaces, such as pens of infected chickens, and infected bird droppings. There have not been any reported cases of bird flu spreading from one human to another, although scientists fear that the disease may be in the process of mutating in order to be able to spread from human to human. Once contracted, bird flu is quite fatal, with an estimated 60% of people with confirmed cases dying from the disease.
Common symptoms include coughing, fever, trouble breathing, vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Complications often arise with bird flu, which can lead to problems such as mental instability, pneumonia, respiratory failure, seizures, shock, multiple organ failure, and even death. While there is no known cure for bird flu, Thailand recently started a trial of a bird flu vaccine that is administered via a nasal spray and does not require an injection. The vaccine was developed after months of international collaboration of various health organizations from around the world.
Despite the fact that bird flu poses little threat to people living outside of Asia and the Middle East, reasonable precaution should still be taken in order to ensure that a bird flu epidemic does not break out worldwide. When handling poultry and eggs, it is necessary to wash your hands in warm water with soap for at least 20 seconds, both before and after handling the meat.
Poultry should be cooked to a temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and eggs should be cooked until both the yolk and white are firm. Utensils used in handling the raw poultry and eggs, such as knives and cutting boards, should be washed thoroughly with soap and water. When traveling, tourists should be careful to not visit bird farms that are likely to have infected bird populations.
Wild populations of birds can also carry bird flu, although this strain of bird flu very rarely infects humans. Nonetheless, people traveling to countries with known cases of bird flu should not touch wild fowl, whether it is alive or dead.
While there is widespread fear of contracting a case of bird flu, there is little harm presented by the disease to those who do not come into contact with fowl very often. There are also very few cases of the highly infectious disease in industrialized countries where good hygiene is practiced in the handling of livestock. By avoiding handling birds and using proper hand washing techniques when cooking poultry and eggs, the risk of contracting bird flu is greatly decreased and the spread of the disease can be virtually stopped.