Avian influenza, or 'bird flu', is an infectious viral disease that normally affects only birds. Since 2003, outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza in poultry have occurred in a number of countries throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. As at 15 January 2008, 350 confirmed cases of infection in humans had been reported, with 217 deaths. In Australia, there have been no reports of H5N1 avian influenza in birds and there have been no known human cases of H5N1 influenza. This situation is being closely monitored by animal and human health authorities.
Authorities are particularly concerned about the possibility that the H5N1 avian influenza virus may mutate into a strain that can spread more easily from person to person. There is no evidence of sustained person to person spread in the current H5N1 avian influenza outbreak. People travelling overseas to avian influenza affected countries are currently only at risk of contracting bird flu if they have close contact with infected birds or raw poultry products.
The virus is found in bird faeces and respiratory secretions and does not easily spread from birds to humans. The risk of contracting the disease from occasional contact with an infected bird, such as when travelling on public transport, is extremely low.
The usual symptoms of avian influenza are similar to those of other forms of influenza, such as high fever, cough, fatigue and aching muscles. Runny nose and sneezing are occasionally present and diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain may also occasionally occur.
Antiviral medications such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) can be used in the treatment of avian influenza. Antibiotics may be required for secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia.
Travellers to countries where avian influenza is present should:
- avoid situations where they may come into close contact with birds, such as poultry farms and live bird markets;
- avoid raw chicken, eggs, and other poultry products. If it is necessary to handle or cook poultry and eggs, ensure they are handled hygienically with careful attention to hand washing after handling, and thorough cooking, as this destroys the virus; and
- wash hands regularly and more frequently than usual.
Travelers should check the Australian Government travel advisory ( http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/#m ) for the country they are visiting to determine if the country is avian influenza affected. Australian Government travel advice on avian influenza can be found at http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/TravelBulletins/Health_:_Avian_Influenza ( http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/TravelBulletins/Health_:_Avi... ).
While some preliminary development work has been done, no human vaccine is currently available for avian influenza. The ordinary influenza vaccine does not protect against avian influenza. However influenza vaccination is recommended annually for all people 65 years of age and over, all Indigenous people aged 50 years and over, adults and children aged 6 months and over with certain chronic medical conditions, and some other groups. Further information on influenza vaccine can be obtained from the Queensland Health fact sheet on influenza.
Antiviral medications such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) may be protective in reducing the symptoms of avian influenza. These medications are available on prescription only. It is not currently recommended that travellers to countries affected by avian influenza obtain supplies of antiviral medications. People who reside in an avian influenza affected area for an extended period may wish to consider, as a precautionary measure, having access to supplies of antiviral medication for treatment if required. Long term residents are at a greater risk of exposure to avian influenza over time.
Medical advice should be sought before antiviral medications are commenced.
Pneumonia is a very common complication of avian influenza. Over half of the confirmed cases of avian influenza in humans have died, mainly from lung or other organ failure.
- Swine Flu 2009 - a Queensland Health factsheet ( http://access.health.qld.gov.au/hid/InfectionsandParasites/ViralInfectio... )
- Australian Government Travel Advisory Service ( http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/ )
- WHO avian influenza site ( http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/en/ )
- Department of Health and Ageing: frequently asked questions on - Avian influenza (Bird Flu) ( http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-avi...) and Pandemic influenza
- Queensland Health influenza fact sheet
- Queensland Government: Avian influenza and pandemic preparedness
For further information on avian influenza, please contact your local doctor, or nearest Population Health Unit. The Federal Government also has an information telephone hotline 1800 004 599, currently staffed 8:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday to Friday.
Last updated: 22 March, 2011