Influenza is in the news again as the flu season hits full stride. No, it is not the H1N1 strain that is garnering attention this year, rather the avian influenza (H5N1) strain, which is commonly called the bird flu.
Recently a man in China has died from the H5N1 flu, the first reported human death in 18 months. The death prompted the local government to cull thousands of birds to prevent the spread of the virus. At this time no other cases have been discovered.
What is H5N1?
H5N1 is a particular strain of avian flu that can cause infection in humans, first discovered in Southern China in 1996. Over 300 humans in twelve different countries have died from the H5N1 bird flu.
The majority of H5N1 cases in humans have been due to the handling of infected birds. 60% of those who have been infected with H5N1 have died. The following people have an increased chance of contracting the avian flu:
- Individuals who breed and handle poultry
- Travellers visiting infected countries
- Those who eat undercooked poultry
The virus usually spreads from farm to farm, and then from bird to bird, via air or bird droppings; the virus can also be carried on feet of rodents, spreading virus further.
From one country to another, virus is spread through international trade of poultry; migratory birds have also been known to spread virus, while wild ducks can pollute water supplies.
The virus can survive in cool temperatures in contaminated manure for 3 months; in water, up to four days at 22 degrees Celsius and 30 days at 0 degrees Celsius. This resilience allows ample time for the virus to affect other birds. Infected birds are then able to spread the virus from country to country through migratory patterns.
All influenza viruses have the potential to can change. It is possible that an avian influenza virus could change so that it could infect humans and could spread easily from person to person. Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population. If an avian virus were able to infect people and gain the ability to spread easily from person to person, an “influenza pandemic” could begin.
Infection of the H5N1 virus causes typical flu-like symptoms in humans such as:
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Eye infections
- In several fatal cases, severe respiratory distress secondary to viral pneumonia
The best way to minimize the spread is rapid destruction of all infected or exposed birds, which involves proper disposal of carcasses, rigorous quarantine and disinfection measures (virus is killed by heat, 60 degrees C for 30 minutes) and common disinfectants such as formalin and iodine compounds.
Currently there is no vaccination for H5N1. The best prevention on a personal level is to use protective gear when handling birds that may be infected, as well as avoiding live-bird markets in infected areas. It is also very important to avoid undercooked poultry and egg products.
For organizations worldwide it is a reminder to be prepared. As the H1N1 pandemic becomes a thing of the past, we need to be vigilant and ready for the next pandemic, which substantiated the H5N1 strain.
In order to protect yourself and your organization it is vital that you have in place a pandemic plan that covers the following areas:
- Communication tools and protocols
- Human resources policies
- Vaccine and antiviral usage
- Personal protective equipment strategies
- Infection control measures
In August 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned of a possible major resurgence of the H5N1 virus in the coming months, saying migratory birds appeared to be carrying it and infecting domestic poultry in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
While we have no way of knowing exactly when the next pandemic will take place, by having the right tools in place we can mitigate the potential risks.
While you can’t always foresee an emergency situation, you can always ensure you are prepared.