School Age Children Health: Bird (Avian) Flu

One issue of growing concern for parents is the bird flu and how it can affect their children’s health. Also known as the avian flu, the bird flu virus has recently caused the deaths of thousands of birds since the strain of the avian bird flu virus known as H5N1 first appeared in 1997. But what exactly is the bird flu: what are avian flu symptoms in humans and how much of a threat does this disease pose to your children?

What is Bird Flu?
The bird flu virus is caused by an influenza virus that typically only infects birds (including chickens and other poultry, swans and ducks) and less frequently pigs.

There are different strains of the flu; some involve mild symptoms (for example, decreased egg production in birds) while others are more severe, with more serious symptoms and are generally fatal.

The H5N1 strand of the bird flu that infected individuals in Asia and the Middle East represents a more serious form of the disease. However, to date the people who have died from the disease had direct contact with birds infected with the virus. Approximately 160 individuals have died from the disease since it was first identified as a threat in 1997.

As of January 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed 270 human cases of H5NA in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

How Much of a Risk is Bird Flu to My Child?
While avian flu is considered to be a controlled disease at present, experts are concerned that the H5N1 strand of the virus could mutate into a form of the virus that is able to spread between people, as has been the case with other viruses in the past. This would create a pandemic situation. A pandemic situation is defined as when clusters of people with bird flu symptoms in a country.

However, countries such as Japan, Korea and Malaysia have controlled bird flu outbreaks and the culling of millions of birds has helped to minimize the risk of the disease spreading to humans.

In nations where there have not been any outbreaks of the virus to date, including the United States, bans have been placed on poultry imports from countries that have experienced avian flu outbreaks. Because there have not been any outbreaks of the disease in American birds, it is not considered to be a threat to the American population and shouldn’t become one unless and until there is a global pandemic situation.

The WHO continues to monitor countries in which outbreaks have occurred, and an emergency plan has been established, which includes the stockpiling of antiviral medications that can help to minimize avian flu symptoms.

Avian Flu Symptoms in Humans
Symptoms of the bird flu mimic those of the common flu:

Bird flu symptoms can also include eye infections, severe coughing, pneumonia as well as respiratory problems.

While the risk of bird flu is low, you should seek medical attention promptly in the case that your child is experiencing any of these symptoms.

Is There An Avian Flu Vaccine?
To date, there is no vaccine for the bird flu. However, scientists are working to develop one. In the meantime, antiviral medications can help to minimize the severity of symptoms.

How Do I Reduce the Risk of Bird Flu Affecting My Child?
While the risk of avian flu in the United States is low, it is always best to take precautions to reduce your child’s risk of bird flu.

Here are some helpful hints on how to keep your family safe from the bird flu virus:

  • ensure that your children get the flu shot. While it’s not a vaccine for bird flu, it can help protect your child from serious illness.
  • properly cook chicken, turkey and other poultry. Because heat kills viruses, properly cooking meat is essential. Cook meat at a minimum of 158 degrees Fahrenheit
  • take care of your pet bird. Make sure that your family’s pet bird stays indoors in order to reduce the risk of contact with wild migratory birds that can be carriers of disease. Also, keep the bird’s cage clean at all times and make sure that you and your children wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet or coming into contact with your pet (i.e. saliva, feces, urine). Be sure to keep any surfaces that come into contact with your bird clean as well.