Are travelers at risk for the bird flu? What are the symptoms associated with this illness? ABCNEWS.com asked Dr. William Schaffner to answer questions about the risks the disease poses to the U.S. population. Schaffner is an infectious disease specialist and the chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Question: What is bird flu?
Answer: Influenza comes in a variety of forms and this is a type of influenza that is for all intents and purposes confined to birds.
This virus is found principally in Southeast Asia but it has also infected flocks of migratory water fowl, and their migration patterns extend into Eastern Europe. That's important because it opens up the possibility that this virus could be transported by migratory water fowl and get into the poultry populations of Eastern Europe.
Although bird-related influenza has been known for years, a single strain that could spread geographically so extensively is a new phenomenon.
Question: How is it contracted?
Answer: Influenza is what we call a respiratory virus. When we breath out, there are microscopic secretions that can contain a virus. And if you're close to an individual and in turn inhale those secretions, you can get an infection.
Also, if I get these secretions on my hands I can touch someone else and perhaps inoculate them.
Influenza has the capacity to spread rather rapidly in enclosed spaces, and remember: This is a wintertime virus, as most respiratory viruses are.
Eating an infected chicken won't give you the infection; that's not a risk. The problem is that you don't want an infected flock around that could spread it to more chickens or humans.
Question: What are the symptoms?
Answer: All influenza manifests itself pretty much the same way: You feel poorly. You develop a fever, general aches and pains, you lose your appetite and your energy, and importantly you develop a cough. We're talking about adults here – in children they may cough a little less and have abdominal pain.
Influenza viruses can range – as with most infections diseases – from relatively mild to severe and overwhelming, and because humans have not had experience with this sort of influenza virus before, it is anticipated that basically anyone on the planet is susceptible and therefore illness would be rather severe.
This anticipation of avian flu is born out of these few early cases in humans, where about half the people have died. That's a frightening thought.
Question: Is there a cure?
Answer: Yes, fortunately we have antiviral drugs and the most common one is Tamiflu. It has to be administered early and it is effective in shortening the course of infection and bringing it more rapidly to a close.
Of course there's also supportive care, keeping up your liquids, perhaps taking medication for the fever, going to bed for a few days, and seriously ill people would have to be admitted to the hospital.
Question: How do you know if you are at risk for avian flu?
Answer: There is a notification network around the world run by the World Health Organization that will let us know if the bird flu has developed the capacity to get into humans and has spread.
When that happens, we will be tracking this bird flu. So it's not a matter of someone in Peoria, Ill., or New Mexico becoming ill and thinking, "Gee I might have the bird flu." It doesn't happen in isolation like that. We will know it's coming.