Avian flu

Background

Avian influenza, or "bird flu", is a contagious disease of animals caused by viruses that normally infect only birds and, less commonly, pigs. While all bird species are thought to be susceptible to infection, domestic poultry flocks are especially vulnerable to infections that can rapidly cause epidemics in poultry.

Bird to human infection can occur but is rare. Human cases were described in Hong Kong in 1997 during the large outbreak avian influenza affecting the large live poultry markets, again in Hong Kong in 1999, in The Netherlands in 2003 and in British Columbia in 2004. All human cases were probably infected through close contact with live infected poultry. In the current outbreak in southeast and east Asia (caused by H5N1) human illness is very severe in most reported cases. Some cases have been reported to have fully recovered; other cases have reportedly died with pneumonia. Factors underlying severity of illness are not well understood. Human to human spread of the current avian flu (H5N1) by small-particle aerosols has not been documented but is of potential concern should this occur and be sustained. A useful response to questions about avian flu can be found on the World Health Organization website. Further useful information can also be found in the following Department of Health document "Bird flu and pandemic influenza: what are the risks?".

Travel

There are no travel restrictions for those planning to visit areas with known avian flu as the risk to UK travellers is believed to be very low. Travellers to affected areas are however, advised to take the following precautions.

  • Avoid contact with live poultry and wild birds 
  • Avoid visiting live animal markets and poultry farms 
  • Avoid contact with surfaces contaminated with animal faeces 
  • Do not eat or handle undercooked or raw poultry, egg or duck dishes 
  • Exercise good personal hygiene with frequent hand washing 
  • Do not attempt to bring any live poultry products back to the UK.

It is not recommended that travellers take with them the neuraminidase inhibitor, Oseltamivir (Tamiflu®).

Up to date advice for UK travellers can be found on the The National Travel Health Network and Centre website. Advice for travellers is also at the at: Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.

Guidelines on the management of travellers returning from avian influenza-infected regions with a febrile illness as well as general issues about avian flu can also be found on the Health Protection Agency’s website at: are available from the Health Protection Agency.

(The University of Exeter acknowledges the kind permission of the University of Oxford Occupational Health Service in the preparation of the above information.)