Avian flu is a highly contagious animal disease caused by viruses that normally only infect birds. In birds, the viruses can present a range of symptoms from mild illness and low mortality to a highly contagious disease with a near-100% fatality rate.
Avian flu viruses are highly species-specific, but have, on rare occasions, crossed the species barrier to infect humans.
We are used to epidemics of ‘ordinary’ flu, which occur seasonally, every year, around the world. An epidemic is a widespread outbreak of disease occuring in a single community, population or region.
A pandemic, on the other hand, occurs on a much greater scale, spreading around the world and affecting many hundreds of thousands of people across many countries.
People are rarely infected with avian flu viruses. Those who have become infected have had close, direct contact with live infected birds or surfaces and objects contaminated by their faeces.
The symptoms are similar to ordinary human flu, most commonly starting with a high temperature (>38°C) and either a cough or shortness of breath.
The time from exposure to the source of infection to the onset of symptoms is likely to be between three and five days, with a maximum time of seven days.
This appears to vary. Some cases have been reported to have fully recovered; other cases have died with severe pneumonia.
You can reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of catching or spreading flu by:
If you do catch flu:
Currently available flu vaccines will not protect against disease caused by the H5N1 strain.
There are already several potential vaccines for protecting humans from infection with bird flu, at various stages of testing and production. Vaccine manufacturers and institutions working to develop and produce bird flu vaccines are using several candidate virus strains based on H5N1, which have been made available by the World Health Organization.
Whether these will be suitable for use against a new pandemic flu strain will depend on how much the pandemic strain has mutated from the original H5N1 virus strain used to create the vaccine.
If the virus should substantially change, it is unlikely that any existing vaccines would be effective, and a new one would have to be developed. Whilst the existence of an H5N1 vaccine could speed up the production of vaccine that was effective against a different strain, work on creating such a vaccine could only begin once the new strain had been identified.
We are making sure that we have adequate channels of communication available to inform the whole University community about avian flu. We are also ensuring that our business continuity plan is fit for purpose.
Regularly updated information about human cases of H5N1 is available on the WHO website.
The World Health Organization does not at present recommend any restrictions on travel to any country currently experiencing outbreaks of avian flu in poultry flocks, including countries which have also reported cases in humans.
Recommendations to travellers to areas experiencing outbreaks of the disease in poultry are:
For regularly updated travel advice, please see the Health Protection Agency list of affected countries.
Even if you become ill on your return to Britain it is still very unlikely that you will have avian flu, but if all of the following statements are true you should seek help:
you develop a high temperature and either a cough or shortness of breath which you consider is severe enough to need medical help AND
If all of the above statements are true and you are a student, act as follows:
If all of the above statements are true and you are a member of staff, contact your GP.
Yes. In areas free of the disease, poultry and poultry products can be prepared and consumed as usual (following good hygiene practices and proper cooking) with no fear of acquiring infection with the H5N1 virus.
Avian influenza H5N1 remains a disease of birds and the risk of catching bird flu is extremely low. However, people are advised that if they come across a dead bird they should not touch it. Guidance on what to do can be found on the Directgov's animal diseases webpage.
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen’s Printer for Scotland.