We live in a marvelous time when technology has become man’s servant. For the average person, everyday living has become more a matter of pressing buttons than a matter of hard physical labor. Meanwhile, advancements in technology have crossed the digital divide. There are far fewer barriers to communication now. Also, it is now possible to diagnose most serious diseases. In many cases we can even cure these diseases.
Some of these diseases can be fatal and spread quickly. One of the short-term outbreaks of recent history was SARS. One of the diseases not yet cured is HIV/AIDS. Bird flu, or avian influenza, is one of the diseases that medical science has targeted as likely to spread from human to human soon, unless a more effective immunization or other cure is discovered first.
A plain description of the bird flu threat
In very general terms, bird flu is an infection of a flu virus that originally spread among birds. Avian influenza viruses can spread around the globe because birds migrate great distances. These viruses are typically found in the bird’s intestines. Many of these viruses do not cause severe symptoms in the birds. When birds are packed closely together, such as in poultry farms with chickens and turkeys, the avian influenza viruses spread very rapidly among them.
Bird flu crossing the species barrier into humans was first confirmed in Hong Kong in 1997. Since that time the World Health Organization (WHO) has worked with government and private health agencies around the world to try to monitor the disease. Many of these agencies are seeking remedies for human cases of the bird flu, while monitoring for any mutations in the disease that might lead to a spread among humans or change how the disease can be remedied.
There is currently little risk of bird flu for most people, as it requires close interaction with infected birds or bird feces. However, for those who have constant contact with birds, the risk becomes very high during outbreaks in local poultry. This is particularly true for the current strain of bird flu known as H5N1, or avian influenza A. The alarm was sounded around the end of 2003 when H5N1 infected poultry in several Asian countries led to several human infections. About half of those infected died.
Know the symptoms
Bird flu spreads by contact with an infected bird’s saliva, nasal secretions, or feces. Other birds appear to have little resistance to the disease when they come in contact with the virus and are quickly infected. Hence the more closely birds interact the more quickly it spreads. Humans who interact with these birds without proper protective gear are also susceptible to the disease.
It is important to know the symptoms of bird flu so that you can respond quickly and appropriately if you see these symptoms. In birds the H5N1 strain can cause diarrhea, difficulty breathing, excessive shedding, and a swollen head. Of course if you’re not a bird expert you’re unlikely to be able to differentiate these symptoms from normal bird behavior, save the difficulty breathing. And you certainly won’t note these symptoms unless you’re up close to see the bird.
Some of the more general symptoms of bird flu are the same symptoms you’d likely see in any flu strain. These symptoms are cough, headache, fever, sore throat, chest pains, muscle aches, and lethargy. Some severe symptoms that may be an alarm for bird flu are pneumonia, eye infections, acute respiratory problems such as breathing difficulties, inflammation of the heart, and inflammation of the brain.
As noted, many of the symptoms of bird flu can be confused with a normal flu. Many of the other symptoms are hard for anyone but a trained health care worker to identify. However, if you have any reason to suspect these symptoms are present, you should seek immediate medical attention for the sake of the infected individual and everyone else who might become infected if H5N1 should make the human to human leap.