Bird flu - what you need to know

Also known as avian influenza, bird flu is an infectious disease of birds caused by a variant of the standard influenza A virus.

What is it?

Also known as avian influenza, bird flu is an infectious disease of birds caused by a variant of the standard influenza A virus. Since mid-December 2003, a growing number of south east Asian countries have reported outbreaks of bird flu in chickens and ducks. The virus can spread rapidly through flocks of domestic poultry. It is the H5N1 strain which is infecting humans and causing high death rates.

How does it affect humans?

Humans can catch bird flu directly through close contact with live infected birds, and those who work with infected chickens are most at risk.

If the virus mutates into a form that can be passed between humans, it could result in the infection spreading rapidly across the globe.

What are the symptoms?

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In humans, symptoms include fever, sore throats and coughing. People can also develop conjunctivitis. It takes three to five days to develop symptoms.

The H5N1 strain is the most deadly type of the bird flu virus with 50 per cent of victims dying.

How severe is the disease?

It varies. In Hong Kong in 1997 an outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus affected 18 people and caused six deaths. In the current outbreak human illness is very severe in most cases. Forty nine countries have so far had H5N1 outbreaks among birds, and 200 million birds have died or been culled.

Should we stop eating chicken?

No. There is no evidence that cooked poultry can infect people. You need to be in close proximity to live, infected birds to catch the current mutation of the virus.

What should I do if I find a dead wild bird?

The Health Protection Agency advises the public should not unnecessarily handle dead or diseased wild birds or other dead animals, which almost always pose a variety of disease risks. The agency warns almost all human cases of infection with HPAI H5N1 confirmed to date have been associated with close contact with infected poultry.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has a hotline for people to contact on 08459 335577.