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Frequently Asked Questions About Bird Flu

Your Bird Flu FAQs

WebMD has been in touch with the CDC, the World Health Organization, and infectious disease experts to answer your bird flu questions.

What Is Bird Flu?

Bird flu, or avian influenza, is a viral infection spread from bird to bird. Currently, a particularly deadly strain of bird flu -- H5N1 -- continues to spread among poultry in Egypt and in certain parts of Asia.

Technically, H5N1 is a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus. It's deadly to most birds. And it's deadly to humans and to other mammals that catch the virus from birds. Since the first human case in 1997, H5N1 has killed nearly 60% of the people who have been infected.

But unlike human flu bugs, H5N1 bird flu does not spread easily from person to person. The very few cases of human-to-human transmission have been among people with exceptionally close contact, such as a mother who caught the virus while caring for her sick infant.

Migrating water fowl -- most notably wild ducks -- are the natural carriers of bird flu viruses. It's suspected that infection can spread from wild fowl to domestic poultry. 

Because the disease has spread to wild birds, pigs, and even to donkeys, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. As of 2011, the disease was well established in six nations: Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

How Do Humans Get Bird Flu?

People catch bird flu by close contact with birds or bird droppings. Exactly what "close contact" means differs from culture to culture.

Some people have caught H5N1 from cleaning or plucking infected birds. In China, there have been reports of infection via inhalation of aerosolized materials in live bird markets. It's also possible that some people were infected after swimming or bathing in water contaminated with the droppings of infected birds. And some infections have occurred in people who handle fighting cocks.

People don't catch the virus from eating fully cooked chicken or eggs.

There have been a few cases where one infected person caught the bird flu virus from another person -- but only after close personal contact. So far, there has been no sustained human-to-human spread of H5N1.

Can I Catch Bird Flu From Another Person?

As long as the bird flu virus doesn't change into a human flu virus, it won't spread far in people.

But sometimes -- after close personal contact -- a person who gets bird flu does infect another person.

In Indonesia in 2006, bird flu spread to eight members of one family. Seven of them died. It's not clear exactly how this happened. Family members likely had similar contacts with infected birds. They may also have shared genes that made them particularly susceptible to the virus. However, casual contact does not seem to be involved.

WebMD Medical Reference

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