Avian influenza
Communicable diseases factsheet

Avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds. Overseas, humans have rarely been infected after close contact with infected birds. To prevent infection, avoid contact with birds and their droppings in affected countries.

Page last updated: 07 October 2008

Last revised on 7 October 2008

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What is avian influenza (bird flu)?

  • Avian influenza is an infectious disease of birds, caused by a number of different strains of avian influenza virus. Some avian influenza viruses circulate in wild bird populations causing no disease or only mild disease. Infection of domestic poultry, such as chickens, can cause severe disease.
  • Some strains of avian influenza can rarely cause disease in humans.
  • A new type of avian influenza, called influenza A H5N1, was first recognised in 1997 in Hong Kong. This strain reappeared in late 2003 and rapidly spread to birds in other countries in Asia, and later to some areas of the Middle-East, Europe and Africa. This strain of avian influenza has not been identified in Australia.

    What are the symptoms?

  • When people are infected with influenza A H5N1, symptoms are similar to severe human influenza (fever, cough, tiredness, muscle aches, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose, headache). Pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and diarrhoea may occur.
  • For the influenza A H7 strain, the most common symptom of humans is conjunctivitis (inflammation of the lining of the eye).
  • Symptoms generally appear between 2 and 5 days following exposure.

    How is it spread?

  • This virus has infected some people in affected countries following close contact with infected poultry or contaminated materials.
  • Humans infected with the H5N1 virus do not easily transmit the infection to others. When this has occurred it seems to have been to other people in the same family group.
  • Eating cooked poultry products including chicken or eggs does not result in infection.

    Who is at risk?

  • Most people are not at risk of this disease, except if they come into contact with infected birds or their secretions while in affected areas of the world, or possibly if caring for a person with the human form of the disease.
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    How is it prevented?

    People who are in contact with patients with avian influenza or who are working with infected birds must use personal protective equipment (including masks, goggles, gloves and protective clothing), follow excellent infection control, and may require anti-influenza medication.
    Laboratory workers handling specimens must follow special safety requirements.
    A human vaccine is not available for avian influenza in Australia.
    People travelling to areas affected by avian influenza should:
  • avoid poultry farms and live bird markets
  • wash their hands thoroughly after handling uncooked poultry products such as meat or eggs, and
  • ensure that poultry is cooked thoroughly before eating.

    How is it diagnosed?

  • Avian influenza infection can be diagnosed in people with symptoms who have a history of exposure to the virus using specimens of blood, or from swabs of the nose and throat. Testing is done at specialised laboratories.

    How is it treated?

  • Specific anti-influenza drugs are likely to be effective against avian influenza in humans and are used to treat people with the H5N1 strain. Isolation of the patient and supportive medical care is necessary.

    What is the public health response?

  • The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Services conducts surveillance for the illegal importation of birds or bird products at Australian borders.
  • Doctors and laboratories must notify people with suspected avian influenza to the local public health unit.
  • Should human cases be suspected in Australia, the local public health unit will work with the patient, the treating doctors, and the laboratory to confirm the diagnosis.
  • Cases will be isolated from others to prevent further infections.
  • Close contacts of cases will be counselled about the risk of infection. Should they develop symptoms, they will also be isolated and tested for avian influenza.

    For more information

  • Australian Government Department of Health information hotline 1800 004 599.

    Related links

  • World Health Organization
  • Travel Advice (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention