What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza is a viral infection caused by influenza A viruses that can spread easily and quickly among birds. There are several types of avian influenza viruses, and most rarely infect humans. However, some of these viruses, such as H5N1 and H7N9, have caused serious illness in humans.

What is my risk? 

The risk for most travellers is low. The risk increases if travelling to a destination that is experiencing an outbreak from a serious influenza strain.

How is it transmitted?   

Although rare, certain strains of avian influenza can be transmitted to humans, mainly through contact with infected birds or objects that have been contaminated with the virus (for example, eating infected poultry, contact with infected bird droppings).

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms usually take two to eight days to appear, and sometimes longer.
  • They usually include symptoms similar to seasonal influenza (flu) such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, aching muscles and sore throat. Other early symptoms, mainly related to H5N1, may include: diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, chest pain, and bleeding from the nose and gums.
  • In more severe cases, the disease can progress rapidly within days, leading to serious respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, which may lead to death.
  • People who become infected with serious strains of avian influenza viruses, such as H5N1 or H7N9, can become seriously ill and in some cases die. The case-fatality (death) rate is much higher for these types of avian influenza infections compared to that of seasonal flu infections.

Can avian influenza be treated?

Antiviral drugs may be able to reduce the severity and length of illness, if taken early enough.

Where is avian influenza a concern?

Since 2003, there have been more than 650 confirmed human cases of avian influenza H5N1 in 15 countries: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.  

Human cases of avian influenza H7N9 were reported from China in early 2013.

The World Health Organization (WHO) posts information on the total number of human cases of avian influenza  and maps of where human cases of avian influenza have occurred.

Recommendations

Consult a health care provider or visit a travel health clinic preferably six weeks before you travel.

1. Minimize your risk of being exposed to avian influenza:

  • If you are travelling to an area where avian influenza is a concern, particularly one of the countries mentioned above:
    • avoid high-risk areas such as poultry farms and live animal markets, including areas where poultry may be slaughtered
    • avoid contact with birds (alive or dead), including chickens, ducks and wild birds
    • avoid surfaces that may have bird droppings or secretions on them
    • ensure that all poultry dishes, including eggs, are well cooked

2. Wash your hands frequently:

  • Wash your hands with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds, as often as possible
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer can also be used if soap and water are not available. It’s a good idea to always keep some with you when you travel.

3.    Practise proper cough and sneeze etiquette:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with your arm to reduce the spread of germs. If you use a tissue, dispose of it as soon as possible and wash your hands afterwards.

4. Monitor your health:

  • If you have developed flu-like symptoms and you have been travelling or living in an area where avian influenza is a concern:
    • Upon arrival in Canada, tell a border services officer or a quarantine officer.
    • If you develop symptoms after your return to Canada, you should see a health care provider immediately and tell them where you have been travelling or living.

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