What is Bird Flu?

”Band of chickens"

Bird Flu, which is also known as Avian Influenza, is a viral disease that affects birds primarily. Although birds are common carriers of the plague, the infection can also extend to other animals and human beings as well. The pathogen, which is also identified by the moniker H5N1, is a significant universal threat.


Although the earliest traces of bird flu can be traced back to the late 1950’s, it wasn’t until 1997 that humans began contracting the antibody. A handful of people in Hong Kong were diagnosed with bird flu, six of whom died as a result.

Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses
Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza. A H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green) (Wikipedia)
In fact, according to the World Health Organization, bird flu killed nearly 60% of those infected with the virus. More prevalent in East and South Asia, the contagion even found its way to North America, where a person who had traveled from China to Canada was suffering from this virus.


Signs of how bird flu manifests itself vary from one individual to another. Typical indicators include conventional symptoms such as high fever, coughing, sore throat, running nose, and exhaustion respectively.

The aforementioned signals occur in mild cases. In circumstances that are more severe, these symptoms can develop into considerable breathing difficulties, pneumonia, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).


The original outbreak of H5N1 in humans was linked with the handling of infected poultry. The epidemic is intrinsically connected to genus Anseriformes, which are a family of wild waterfowl, such as ducks and geese.

Bird flu can travel to land-based birds, which are found predominantly in domestic poultry farms. This is how humans come in contact with the deadly virus. Any physical contact with infected birds can disseminate the disease. However surprisingly, the consumption of bird produce like eggs, even if taken from infected birds, does not transmit bird flu. The same applies to meat as well.

For a more scientific explanation, the trains of the common influenza germ that have undergone an evolution can enter the avian cells. Influenza is broadly categorized in three types, namely A, B, and C respectively. Bird flu is caused by the A type, which is comprised of eight strands of RNA.

Moreover, two distinct proteins called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase are located on the surface of the bacteria. The mainstream outbreak of bird flu, H5N1 owes its title to these proteins. The numbers actually indicate the number of each protein in the pathogen. Similarly, the bird flu eruption witnessed in 2013 was called H7N9, indicative of its protein quotient.

Bird flu is not the only influenza that affects animals. In fact, there are various kinds which impact animals. Likewise, take swine flu (SIV) for example, which is contracted from pigs and the like. Pathogen called Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or as it is widely known, Mad Cow Disease also broke out in the late 90’s. Similar to bird flu, it was transmissible from cows to humans.

Furthermore, influenza viruses can spread easily since their mutation is quite rapid.

A concern for patients, doctors, and scientists is that mutations in the virus allow it to avert the body’s immune system, rendering old vaccinations futile in the process. Something similar occurred in 2011 when an existing cure was no longer sufficient in treating avian flu.


As mentioned, humans acquire bird flu when they make contact with birds or their excretions. This represents the highest risk of developing it. Unfortunately, the H5N1 pathogen is able to endure and can gestate for long periods of time. In fact, birds which are affected may secrete the virus in their salivation and feces for almost ten days. This means that any poultry that is prepared and dispatched to retailers and consumers is naturally at risk as well.

All in all, personnel who are running the greatest risk include poultry farmers of course. Beyond that, a person who travels from one destination to another may potentially incur the virus too. Additionally, people exposed to blighted birds and those who undercook their meat or eggs can also develop bird flu. Last but not least, health care workers may also catch the disease from patients they are treating.


Given the fact that the predominance of bird flu in humans is sporadic, researchers have not been able to conduct sufficient research in order to develop a cure. Dealing with an outbreak likely requires extensive and rigorous medical trials and tests before an antidote is available.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the ideal way to prevent bird flu is to simply avoid exposure to the carriers of this disease. For example, bird feces are not just limited to poultry farms. A lot of birds discharge their waste on roads, buildings, and vehicles. It is not entirely outlandish to presume that a person could come in direct physical contact with it.

Furthermore, governing bodies such as the CDC and WHO (World Health Organization) suggest that antiviral medication such as Tamiflu and Relenza can be taken if a patient shows signs of avian influenza. Countries such as the United States are even stockpiling vaccinations in case of another outbreak.

Discolored chicken legs
“Hemorrhaging of the skin and legs is just one of the signs birds might exhibit when infected with the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus.” (Wikimedia)
As it stands now, there is no vaccine available for the H7N9 bird flu type. However, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) announced years ago that a vaccination to prohibit humans from developing bird flu was in development. It has since reached fruition and has been procured by the US government should the need for mass distribution arise in the future.


Although there is currently no cure for bird flu, you can take precautions to limit getting infected.

  • As a general rule, good health starts with washing your hands, so one should be vigilant when handling food as well.
  • Also, as a general rule, do not go to public places if you feel ill.
  • Avoid contact with dead birds, birds that are ill and birds in the wild. Contact local authorities if you see birds that are dead or ill.