Avian influenza (bird flu)
There are certain types of influenza A viruses that usually only infect birds; these are called avian influenza viruses (AIV). AIV are highly contagious and are commonly found in wild aquatic birds, such as waterfowl and shorebirds. Avian influenza viruses can also infect domestic poultry, such as chickens, ducks or turkeys; which can cause severe disease and death in these animals.
Some AIV, such as H5, H7 and H9 subtypes, have been associated with occasional human infection and disease. Most human cases of avian influenza are caused by infection with H5N1 or H7N9 viruses and are associated with close contact with infected birds or their environment.
The subtypes associated with human infection most commonly circulate in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. AIV commonly detected overseas have not been detected in Australian birds.
The global avian influenza situation is being closely monitored by animal and human health authorities. Transmission of AIV in poultry is of concern to human health due to their potential to cause severe disease in humans or to mutate into a strain that can spread more easily from person to person.
The usual symptoms of avian influenza in humans are similar to other forms of influenza, such as high fever, cough, fatigue and aching muscles. Other symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, conjunctivitis, diarrhoea or vomiting may also occur depending on the type of avian influenza.
Antiviral medications such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) can be used in the treatment of avian influenza. Antibiotics may be required for secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia.
AIV do not easily spread to humans. Birds infected with avian influenza can shed the virus in their saliva, nasal secretions or faeces. Human infections of avian influenza are usually associated with close contact with live or dead infected birds and contaminated environments. Properly prepared poultry and eggs are not a risk to human transmission.
The risk of person-to-person transmission of AIV is low.
Travellers to countries where avian influenza is present should:
- avoid situations where they may come into close contact
with live birds, areas where poultry may be slaughtered, such as poultry
farms and live bird markets or surfaces that are contaminated with faeces.
- 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, thorough cooking, and cleaning of surfaces and items as this destroys the virus.
- wash hands regularly with soap and running water or use an alcohol-based hand rub and avoid touching one's eyes, nose and mouth.
Travellers should check the Australian Government travel advisory for the country they are visiting to determine if the country is avian influenza affected.
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 annual influenza vaccination is recommended for any person >6 months of age who wishes to reduce the likelihood of becoming ill with influenza. Further information on influenza vaccine can be obtained from the Queensland Health fact sheet on influenza.
Antiviral medications, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) 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. Medical advice should be sought before antiviral medications are commenced.
Human infection with avian influenza can lead to mild illness, hospitalisation or severe disease, including severe pneumonia. The risk of severe human disease depends on the virus subtype and may be much higher than seasonal influenza infections.
If you are in an emergency situation, call 000
Get qualified health advice 24/7 for the cost
of a local call, 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84)
For more information contact:
- your local doctor
- your local community health centre
- your nearest public health unit
Travel vaccines need to be
considered in the context of your specific travel itinerary. Immunisation needs
should be discussed with your doctor or travel medical centre at least 6 weeks
before you travel. For further advice on travel vaccinations, visit the Australian Government's Smart