Avian influenza (also called bird flu) is a serious illness that affects the lungs. Currently, this illness mainly infects birds. But if the germs that cause bird flu begin to spread easily among people, a worldwide outbreak could occur. No one knows whether this will happen, but health experts are trying to prepare for such an event. This sheet answers some of the questions you may have about bird flu.
The biggest risk factor for bird flu is contact with sick birds. This is more likely to happen in parts of the world where people raise their own birds for food or where live birds are sold in markets.
Wild birds carry the virus (germ) that causes bird flu. They then spread the virus to farm-raised birds such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys. Most people who have had bird flu have touched an infected bird or its droppings. A few people have been infected by a sick family member. This is rare.
There are multiple strains (types) of bird flu. In the United States, it has been limited to the type that caused only mild to moderate illness. There are strains that have caused more severe illness, including death, in other parts of world, however. There have been more than 650 cases of the more serious type of bird flu in humans since 2003. These cases have mostly occurred in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Europe, and the Near East. The CDC monitors the trains of bird flu found because changes can occur in the viruses that could make them more likely to infect humans.
Bird flu often begins like ordinary influenza, with symptoms such as fever, sore throat, cough, and muscle aches. Some people develop eye infections. If you have any of these symptoms, you most likely do not have bird flu. Of course, if you have symptoms that trouble you or are getting worse, seek medical care.
Heat kills the germs that cause bird flu. You can’t become sick from eating poultry or eggs that are fully cooked. To stay safe:
Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20-30 seconds before and after handling raw chicken or eggs.
Cook poultry until a meat thermometer registers at least 165°F (74°C) at the thickest point. Cook eggs until the whites and yolks are firm.
Use one cutting board just for poultry. Don’t let raw juices touch other foods.
Clean knives and cutting boards with hot water and soap so they don’t contaminate other foods.
Scientists around the world are working to find a vaccine for bird flu. For now, doctors often treat bird flu with the same medications used to treat influenza.
Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website: