Though the transmission of the avian bird flu to humans is still considered rare, the threat of a global pandemic is enough for travelers to stay abreast of the latest news. Helping to provide this information is a new article that reviews the avian flu as well as the recommendations for travelers. The article is published in the latest issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine.
Avian influenza A (H5N1) is a common organism found in the digestive tracts of mainly aquatic birds worldwide. It typically causes few, if any, problems in wild birds but can cause severe disease and death in domesticated fowl. At least 17 major outbreaks of avian flu strains have resulted in the deaths of millions of birds. The 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong also led to transmission to humans. Since 1997, the World Health Organization sites a reported 218 human cases of avian flu, resulting in 124 deaths.
Human-to-human transmission has not been documented. The mutation of the virus that would make that possible could be devastating on a world scale. At this time, however, the risk factors for contracting the virus are limited to contact with infected birds. Those factors include contact from slaughtering, defeathering, and butchering fowl; close contact with wild birds or caged poultry; ingestion of undercooked poultry products; direct contact with surfaces contaminated with poultry feces; and close contact with infected humans.
Once contracted, the human version of the avian flu resembles typical flu illnesses, with fever and lower respiratory tract symptoms. Often, patients develop rapidly progressive respiratory failure and require a ventilator. Treatment is mostly supportive care with the addition of antiviral medications.
For travelers in countries with both human and avian flu, the risk of developing the disease is low. In fact, there are currently no recommended travel restrictions. If anything, common sense would tell travelers to avoid contact with all birds, especially poultry; avoid surfaces contaminated with poultry feces; and avoid undercooked poultry products. The use of prophylactic antiviral medications is not recommended.