Avian influenza

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For Patient Information on Avian Influenza (Bird Flu), click here

For the H5N1 subtype of Avian influenza see H5N1.

Avian influenza, sometimes Avian flu, and commonly Bird flu refers to "influenza caused by viruses adapted to birds."[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

"Bird flu" is a phrase similar to "Swine flu", "Dog flu", "Horse flu", or "Human flu" in that it refers to an illness caused by any of many different strains of influenza viruses that have adapted to a specific host. All known viruses that cause influenza in birds belong to the species: Influenza A virus. All subtypes (but not all strains of all subtypes) of Influenza A virus are adapted to birds, which is why for many purposes avian flu virus is the Influenza A virus (note that the "A" does not stand for "avian").

Adaption is non-exclusive. Being adapted towards a particular species does not preclude adaptions, or partial adaptions, towards infecting different species. In this way strains of influenza viruses are adapted to multiple species, though may be preferential towards a particular host. For example, viruses responsible for influenza pandemics are adapted to both humans and birds. Recent influenza research into the genes of the Spanish Flu virus shows it to have genes adapted to both birds and humans; with more of its genes from birds than less deadly later pandemic strains.


Genetic factors in distinguishing between "human flu viruses" and "avian flu viruses" include:

PB2: (RNA polymerase): Amino acid (or residue) position 627 in the PB2 protein encoded by the PB2 RNA gene. Until H5N1, all known avian influenza viruses had a Glu at position 627, while all human influenza viruses had a lysine.
HA: (hemagglutinin): Avian influenza HA bind alpha 2-3 sialic acid receptors while human influenza HA bind alpha 2-6 sialic acid receptors. Swine influenza viruses have the ability to bind both types of sialic acid receptors.

Influenza pandemic

For more details on this topic, see Influenza pandemic.

Pandemic flu viruses have some avian flu virus genes and usually some human flu virus genes. Both the H2N2 and H3N2 pandemic strains contained genes from avian influenza viruses. The new subtypes arose in pigs coinfected with avian and human viruses and were soon transferred to humans. Swine were considered the original "intermediate host" for influenza, because they supported reassortment of divergent subtypes. However, other hosts appear capable of similar coinfection (e.g., many poultry species), and direct transmission of avian viruses to humans is possible.[8] The Spanish flu virus strain may have been transmitted directly from birds to humans.[9]

In spite of their pandemic connection, avian influenza viruses are noninfectious for most species. When they are infectious they are usually asymptomatic, so the carrier does not have any disease from it. Thus while infected with an avian flu virus, the animal doesn't have a "flu". Typically, when illness (called "flu") from an avian flu virus does occur, it is the result of an avian flu virus strain adapted to one species spreading to another species (usually from one bird species to another bird species). So far as is known, the most common result of this is an illness so minor as to be not worth noticing (and thus little studied). But with the domestication of chickens and turkeys, humans have created species subtypes (domesticated poultry) that can catch an avian flu virus adapted to waterfowl and have it rapidly mutate into a form that kills in days over 90% of an entire flock and spread to other flocks and kill 90% of them and can only be stopped by killing every domestic bird in the area. Until H5N1 infected humans in the 1990s, this was the only reason avian flu was considered important. Since then, avian flu viruses have been intensively studied; resulting in changes in what is believed about flu pandemics, changes in poultry farming, changes in flu vaccination research, and changes in flu pandemic planning.

H5N1 has evolved into a flu virus strain that infects more species than any previously known flu virus strain, is deadlier than any previously known flu virus strain, and continues to evolve becoming both more widespread and more deadly causing Robert Webster, a leading expert on avian flu, to publish an article titled "The world is teetering on the edge of a pandemic that could kill a large fraction of the human population" in American Scientist. He called for adequate resources to fight what he sees as a major world threat to possibly billions of lives.[10] Since the article was written, the world community has spent billions of dollars fighting this threat with limited success.


Colorized micrograph of A H5N1.jpg
For more details on this topic, see H5N1 and Transmission and infection of H5N1.

The highly pathogenic Influenza A virus subtype H5N1 virus is an emerging avian influenza virus that has been causing global concern as a potential pandemic threat. It is often referred to simply as "bird flu" or "avian influenza" even though it is only one subtype of avian influenza causing virus.

H5N1 has killed millions of poultry in a growing number of countries throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. Health experts are concerned that the co-existence of human flu viruses and avian flu viruses (especially H5N1) will provide an opportunity for genetic material to be exchanged between species-specific viruses, possibly creating a new virulent influenza strain that is easily transmissible and lethal to humans.[11]

Since the first H5N1 outbreak occurred in 1997, there has been an increasing number of HPAI H5N1 bird-to-human transmissions leading to clinically severe and fatal human infections. However, because there is a significant species barrier that exists between birds and humans, the virus does not easily cross over to humans, though some cases of infection are being researched to discern whether human to human transmission is occurring.[8] More research is necessary to understand the pathogenesis and epidemiology of the H5N1 virus in humans. Exposure routes and other disease transmission characteristics such as genetic and immunological factors, that may increase the likelihood of infection, are not clearly understood. [12]

Although millions of birds have become infected with the virus since its discovery, 206 humans have died from the H5N1 in twelve countries according to WHO data as of November 2007. (View the most current WHO Data regarding Cumulative Number of Human Cases.)

The Avian Flu claimed at least 200 humans in Romania, Greece, Turkey and Russia. Epidemioloigists are afraid that the next time such a virus mutates, it could pass from human to human. If this form of transmission occurs, another big pandemic could result. However, disease-control centers around the world are making avian flu their top priority.

See also


  1. "Avian influenza strains are those well adapted to birds"EUROPEAN CENTRE FOR DISEASE PREVENTION AND CONTROL.
  2. Chapter Two : Avian Influenza by Timm C. Harder and Ortrud Werner in Influenza Report 2006
  3. Large-scale sequencing of human influenza reveals the dynamic nature of viral genome evolution Nature magazine presents a summary of what has been discovered in the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project.
  4. Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Infection in Humans by The Writing Committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Human Influenza A/H5 in the September 29, 2005 New England Journal of Medicine
  5. The Threat of Pandemic Influenza: Are We Ready? Workshop Summary (2005) Full text of online book by INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES
  6. [1] CDC has a phylogenetic tree showing the relationship between dozens of highly pathogenic varieties of the Z genotype of avian flu virus H5N1 and ancestral strains.
  7. Evolutionary characterization of the six internal genes of H5N1 human influenza A virus
  8. 8.0 8.1 Blanchard, Ben. "China says son likely infected father with bird flu." Reuters 10 Jen 2008 10 Jen 2008 <http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSPEK27288320080110>.
  9. Chapter Two : Avian Influenza by Timm C. Harder and Ortrud Werner
  10. Webster, R. G. and Walker, E. J. (2003). "The world is teetering on the edge of a pandemic that could kill a large fraction of the human population". American Scientist. 91 (2): 122. doi:10.1511/2003.2.122.
  11. Food Safety Research Information Office. "A Focus on Avian Influenza". Created May 2006, Updated November 2007.
  12. World Health Organization. (2006). Avian influenza (" bird flu") – The Disease in Humans. Retrieved April 6, 2006.

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| group12 = Patient Resources on Avian influenza | list12 = Patient resources on Avian influenzaDiscussion groups on Avian influenzaPatient Handouts on Avian influenzaDirections to Hospitals Treating Avian influenzaRisk calculators and risk factors for Avian influenza

| group13 = Healthcare Provider Resources on Avian influenza | list13 = Symptoms of Avian influenzaCauses & Risk Factors for Avian influenzaDiagnostic studies for Avian influenzaTreatment of Avian influenza

| group14 = Continuing Medical Education (CME) Programs on Avian influenza | list14 = CME Programs on Avian influenza

| group15 = International Resources on Avian influenza | list15 = Avian influenza en EspanolAvian influenza en Francais

| group16 = Business Resources on Avian influenza | list16 = Avian influenza in the MarketplacePatents on Avian influenza

| group17 = Informatics Resources on Avian influenza | list17 = List of terms related to Avian influenza