“Bird Flu” - Avian Flu
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What is Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) and how is it spreading?
The recent outbreaks of Bird Flu were caused by a strain of avian influenza virus called H5N1, and have led to the destruction of millions of poultry and other birds. Human infections with H5N1 viruses are rare, but have occurred during 2003 - 2005 in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Humans have mostly contracted infections through direct contact with dead or sick birds, their infected secretions or excretions, or feathers etc. In some cases humans have been indirectly infected by contact with surfaces or material contaminated with infected secretions or excretions from sick or dead birds.

How does Avian Influenza infect Humans and what are its dangers?
Most human cases of H5N1 infection are thought to have occurred from direct contact with infected poultry in the affected countries. H5N1 infections in humans can cause serious disease and death.

Should we be concerned about getting Avian Influenza and what can we do to reduce that risk?
The spread of H5N1 virus from person to person has been rare (1 possible case in Thailand). However, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists believe that the virus could mingle with a human flu virus if a person was simultaneously infected with both. The more this double infection happens, the higher the chance a new virus could be created and be passed easily from person to person. This could lead to a worldwide disease outbreak (pandemic) of influenza.

Direct contact with dead or sick birds, their infected secretions or excretions, or feathers etc., and with surfaces or material contaminated with such secretions or excretions should be avoided. Similarly, visits to places where live or sick birds are kept such as farms or where birds are sold or poultry is slaughtered should also be avoided. Hunting of wild birds or consuming such birds should also be avoided.

A specific vaccine for humans that is effective against avian influenza has not yet been developed.  Based upon limited data, two drugs oseltamivir (commercially known as Tamiflu) and zanamivir (commercially known as Relenza) may be effective in treating avian influenza.

Have Bird Flu cases been reported in Birds or Humans in Saudi Arabia?
So far, there are no known reports that birds in the Kingdom have been infected with the virus. There have been no human cases of H5N1 flu in the Kingdom. It is possible that travelers returning from affected countries could be infected if they were exposed to the virus.  However, there are no such reports to date. The current risk to Saudi population from the H5N1 bird flu outbreak is low.

Can we acquire Bird Flu from Food and how can we avoid this?
To date, there is no evidence that the disease is transmitted to humans through properly cooked poultry and eggs (even if contaminated with the virus prior to cooking). However, in a few instances, cases have been linked to consumption of dishes made of raw contaminated poultry blood. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in countries free of the disease, poultry (i.e., chicken, duck, and turkey) and eggs can be prepared and consumed as usual. Avoid eating undercooked poultry.

The H5N1 virus is sensitive to heat. Normal temperatures used for cooking (70ºC in all parts of the food) will kill the virus. Observe safe food handling practices such as: proper hand washing; cleaning chopping boards and utensils thoroughly with soap and hot water after handling raw poultry; and not allowing raw poultry and poultry products to touch or mix with cooked items before consumption.

How safe is it to travel to Countries affected by Bird Flu?
Both WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in USA have not issued any travel restrictions to affected countries at this time. Moreover, they do not recommend screening of travelers coming from H5N1 affected areas.

Useful Websites:

·         World Health Organization (WHO)- Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response (EPR) http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/avian_faqs/en/index.html

·         Healthy City Program Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Arabic) http://www.hcp.gov.sa/h5n1/

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