It all starts with that unsuspecting bird, and that tiny little virus. Viruses are germs that need to attach to a living host in order to multiply. The bird flu virus attaches itself to birds, especially ones that like water. It then begins to invade the surrounding cells, making the bird sick.
Birds Infecting Other Birds
Birds tend to travel. They have wings to fly, and some of them like to go long distances. If a bird becomes infected with avian influenza, the bird flu virus, it can spread the disease wherever it goes. Birds that migrate are able to expose birds from other countries to the virus.
Flocks and Farms
Birds contained on farms are in danger of infecting the rest of the flock. The circumstance of close quarters allows the virus to spread quickly. Farmers have been known to slaughter entire flocks to prevent further contamination in their local communities. They also must sterilize the entire area, since cages and nests may be contaminated.
The virus seems to thrive better in the intestines of birds. The flu is classified as a respiratory illness. However, some strains of the flu survive better in the intestinal tract. Avian flu is one of them. As it grows in the intestines, it can be discarded through waste products of the birds it infects. Other birds coming into contact with these eliminations can become contaminated.
Birds also spread the avian flu virus through saliva and nasal drips. If they get sick, they become congested, creating more mucous their bodies must discard. Healthy birds get exposed to the germs when they land on surfaces that have been infected. If their immune systems are weak, they too could develop and spread the disease.
Molting birds carrying the avian flu virus contaminate surfaces with their feathers. As the germs grow, they invade entire body systems. When the virus is released through waste of any kind, even feathers, the possibility for contamination exist.
Birds with healthy immune systems are able to defend against the avian flu virus. However, if they come into contact with infected surfaces, they may become carriers of the illness without getting sick. Other birds more susceptible to illness may then get exposed to the virus through waste products from a healthy bird. If their systems cannot defend against the germs, they will get sick.
Birds Infecting People
Birds infect people with the avian flu virus the same way they infect other birds. Carriers of the disease or sick birds expose other birds and people to the virus through body secretions and waste products. Some people are considered to be at higher risk of developing bird flu. This is usually because they have more chance of coming into contact with contaminated material.
Children are more susceptible to bird flu because they have a unique relationship with nature. They like to pick up feathers when at the zoo, or taking a walk. Dirt doesn’t usually bother them. Many of them are so curious about the birds they are looking at, that they don’t even care if they are stepping in droppings.
In Asia, where the bird flu has had severe outbreaks, children became sick because they were doing their chores. They had to feed and water the chickens. They were gathering eggs, and touching contaminated surfaces on the farm. All of these activities helped spread the bird flu virus.
Farmers and Agricultural Workers
People who work outside are especially vulnerable to catching and spreading the bird flu virus. Their risk of exposure to contaminated debris is much higher than those who work in an office. Poultry farmers can become exposed to avian flu when migrating birds visit their farms. If their flocks become infected, they too may get and spread the disease.
Bird Flu Mutation
Flu viruses have the ability to mutate. Their structure is such that it is possible for their genetic makeup to change, allowing it to have better chances for survival. Most viruses contain only one strand of genetic material, but the flu virus has eight. As they multiply, their genetic material may get mixed up, creating different strains of the flu. This gives them the opportunity to adapt to new hosts over the course of generations.
The avian flu virus is able to mutate and jump to different hosts, like pigs. In the process, it continues to change, eventually jumping to a human host when it is able to survive there. Most flu viruses are species specific. However, some flu viruses are able to mutate and infect other animals, as well as people.
Guidelines to Prevent Avian Flu Outbreaks
Since wild birds are not containable, it is difficult to keep them from spreading the avian flu virus. However, there are certain things we can do as precautionary measures.
• Get Vaccinated: Talk to your doctor about getting a bird flu vaccine, especially if you are planning to travel to countries that have had outbreaks of bird flu.
• Limit Exposure to Domestic Farms: Wild birds carrying the avian flu virus often visit unsuspecting farming communities. Don’t expose yourself unnecessarily to possible contamination.
• Wash Your Hands: Killing germs through good hygiene practices has always been essential in the fight against spreading disease. Keep hand sanitizer readily available. Wash regularly with warm water and soap.
• Supervise Your Children: Teach your children to use caution when picking up bird feathers. Help them avoid stepping in waste piles. This can be difficult if you are near the beach where seagulls roam freely, or live on a farm where kids care for the animals. Help your children understand the importance of washing after being exposed to germs.
• Handle Eggs With Care: Egg shells often carry germs. Take extra care when handling eggs, being sure to wash your hands afterward.