Many news broadcasts and Oprah Winfrey would have us all believe that we are all about to die from the avian flu. They are predicting a flu outbreak similar to the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic that killed approximately 40 million people worldwide. Despite what some of these experts say, the avian flu is not posing a significant risk to you right now.
For the most part, viruses are species-specific. For example, if you get a cold, chances are your dog or cat can’t catch it. However, if a few mutations occur, a virus can sometimes alter itself so that it can infect across species lines. The World Health Organization and other public health agencies have been keeping an eye on the influenza virus named H5N1 for the last three years. Unlike the true avian flu, influenza type A, this is a strain of the flu that is not specific to birds. A bird with an H5N1 infection can spread its virus to humans that are in contact with it.
Bird flu (type A and type H5N1) can easily spread among birds by the same routes that humans can pass the flu to each other. If a bird comes into contact with the saliva, nasal secretions, or feces of an infected bird, it may become infected with the flu. Domestic birds, like poultry, can become infected with an avian influenza virus if they come in direct contact with an infected water bird or another infected poultry. They can also get the virus if they come in contact with certain surfaces, like cages or food and water supplies, which have been contaminated with the virus.
On Monday, the Ministry of Health in China confirmed the death of a 29-year-old farm goods worker in the province of Sichuan. She is seventh person to die from H5N1 in China and the second person to die in Sichuan. Officials from the Ministry of Health are currently investigating how she may have contracted the disease.
Since 2003, the WHO has monitored approximately 100 people that contracted H5N1 from infected birds. Although most of these people ultimately died, none of them spread their infection to other humans. To date, most of the cases of human H5N1 infections have occurred in people who handled live birds that became infected. Most of these recorded cases occurred in Asia, and over 100 million birds have been destroyed in order to contain possible outbreaks.
The WHO specifies that many of these outbreaks originated in rural areas where it is common to keep a small flock of poultry, and that the highest risk of contracting the disease from an infected bird occurs during the slaughtering process. The WHO has also stated that it is not possible to contract the virus from eating poultry, as it is killed when meat and eggs are properly cooked.
So keep your ear to the news, you may not need to buy that Oprah-approved face mask just yet. The World Health Organization is continuously monitoring suspected new cases and investigating current ones. They are working to unite nations in producing medications and educating populations about the avian flu.
Footer: Robin and Jessica are senior nutrition majors and Peer Health Educators. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org