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Avian Flu


Avian or bird flu is a disease mostly confined to wild birds and domestic poultry. There are several strains of it but the one causing concern at the present time is a highly virulent form called H5N1. Bird flu is spread from species to species through ingestion and inhalation and it is possible for it to spread from birds to animals in the same way. The virus H5N1 is most common in birds in Asia who shed the virus in saliva, faeces and nasal discharge. The mortality rate in birds is high.

Migrating wild birds, the importation of infected chickens for food and the illegal import of live birds are the main factors in the spread of avian flu. Many people in Asia, Africa and the East live in much closer proximity to animals than people in Western Europe and consequently the different flu viruses mix and cause new strains or cross the species barrier. The H5N1 virus was first shown to have passed from birds to humans in 1997 when 6 deaths were recorded. It is worth stating, however, that people who have become infected with the H5N1 virus have had close and prolonged contact with infected poultry or poultry products. In the UK there are no reports of deaths caused by exposure to bird flu.

The U K government states that it has a tried and tested control plan to address an avian flu epidemic. Preventative measures taken include:

  • The banning of live birds and products including poultry meat, eggs, and unprocessed feathers from affected countries.
  • The European Commission has placed restrictions on the import of live birds and also banned the import of captive birds from all the non-EU countries.
  • The surveillance of wild birds.
  • The monitoring of the migratory paths of infected birds so they can be targeted on arrival in the UK before the disease spreads.

DEFRA has stated that the quickest and most effective method of eradicating the disease is the early detection and slaughter of infected birds and the introduction of movement controls around the infected premises.

The World Health Authority is currently not recommending restrictions on travelling to countries experiencing outbreaks of bird flu but on its website advises the precautions to take.

The Department of Health has issued advice should people returning from affected areas develop some or all of the following symptoms:
A fever
Sore throat
Sore eyes
Muscle aches
Shortness of breath

It is unlikely that a person experiencing these symptoms has contracted bird flu unless close contact has occurred with dead or live poultry in an affected country. There are currently no vaccinations available in the UK or internationally that will protect people from the H5N1 Bird Flu virus.

Useful Websites



Health Protection Agency


Department of Health


Foreign and Commonwealth Office


The National Union of Farmers


New Scientist


World Health Organisation