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Understanding Bird Flu

You've probably about avian flu, also known as bird flu, and may be wondering if you or your family members are at risk. Here is some information that will help in understanding avian or bird flu.

What is avian or bird flu?

Scientists are concerned that the H5N1strain of bird or avian flu could spread across the globe and become the next flu pandemic, sickening and killing scores of people.

The H5N1 bird flu virus is spread when wild birds pass the virus along to birds such as chickens or ducks that are being raised for human consumption. While the wild birds do not seem to be affected by the virus, the livestock that contract the virus get very sick.

Typically, avian or bird flu is not passed from birds to humans. However, in the past ten years, there have been hundreds of cases of bird flu in humans, and scientists believe that, if it continues to spread, there could be a flu pandemic. That's because there is no immunity from bird flu in humans. Your body cannot develop antibodies, and, typically, hospitalization is required. Because of this, anyone is at risk for avian or bird flu, and that's what raises the concern about a flu pandemic.

What is a flu pandemic?

While a flu pandemic is rare, they have occurred. With a flu pandemic, flu vaccine is unavailable in the early weeks, and then there is not enough flu vaccine to distribute to the population. With a flu pandemic, hospitals cannot support the scores of patients of all ages who present with serious flu complications. The business infrastructure may come to a grinding halt as scores fall ill to a flu virus strain that mystifies experts.

Flu symptoms with a flu pandemic are much more severe than the standard seasonal flu, and greater numbers of humans are at risk as the flu quickly spreads. As more people of all ages fall ill, travel may be restricted, offices and schools may close, and large public gatherings can be banned because these gatherings could become breeding grounds for more cases of an incurable flu.

There were three outbreaks of a flu pandemic in the 20th century:

  • The Spanish flu in 1918-1919 killed 500,000 people in the U.S. and as many as 20-50 million people worldwide.
  • The Asian flu in 1957-1958 killed 70,000 Americans.
  • The Hong Kong flu in 1968-1969 caused 34,000 U.S. deaths. This strain is still around. The recent "Fujian flu" is a variant of the Hong Kong flu virus.

Since there have been three flu pandemics in the past 100 years, scientists are convinced that another flu pandemic is inevitable and that any part of the population is vulnerable. The problem is that it is very difficult to tell the difference between a pandemic flu outbreak and a seasonal flu outbreak.

Officials claim that testing to determine the type of flu outbreak could take weeks. Major research is being done that will hopefully speed up the process of influenza testing so that if a flu pandemic is imminent, experts will be able to do everything they can to stop this potentially life-threatening illness.

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