Human Health

Man with caged chickensAs of October 2012, 332 people have died worldwide from the strain of avian flu that is of concern today. In nearly all those cases, the infection occurred after close contact with diseased poultry, infected bird products (feathers, manure, etc.), or contaminated surfaces, such as dirt, water, or cages. By comparison, between 33,000 and 36,000 people die each year in the United States alone from complications caused by other kinds of flu.

Even if the H5N1 strain of avian flu is found in the United States, it would not be immediate cause for alarm when it comes to human health. Right now the virus is not easily transmitted from birds to humans or from one human being to another. The concern is that the virus could mutate into a form that is more dangerous to humans.

There is no human vaccine for preventing the avian flu in its current form. To design a vaccine against a pandemic-causing strain, the virus would first have to mutate into a form that can be easily spread in humans. The drug Tamiflu, produced by the Swiss company Roche, has been found to have some benefits for those who are already sick. There is not a big enough supply of the drug available in the event of a human pandemic but efforts are underway to find new methods of manufacturing the drug in large quantities.

Humans are playing a role in the spread of the disease. Those who smuggle infected poultry, poultry products, or wild birds for the pet industry may spread avian flu to new countries. The virus can also be spread inadvertently by the legal trade and transportation of infected poultry, eggs, and poultry products such as fertilizer.

The links below provide additional information about the threat to human health from the avian flu virus.

Please visit our Q&A section for answers to other questions about the avian flu virus and how it could be spread.