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Avian Influenza Infection


Avian influenza (more commonly known as 'bird flu') is a flu virus that spreads among birds. Rarely, the virus can spread to people who have had close contact with infected birds and causes a 'flu-like' illness, which can be severe.

Recommendations for Travellers

Birds shed flu virus in their droppings, saliva and nasal secretions, spreading it onto their feathers.

People are usually infected through having close contact with infected birds, or with surfaces which are contaminated with bird secretions:

  • visiting bird enclosures or wet markets where birds have been recently kept increases your risk of becoming infected

Very rarely, people can infect others with the virus if they are exposed to the secretions or body fluids from the infected person.

Reducing your Risk when travelling

Before travelling, you should:

To reduce your risk of 'bird flu' whilst travelling, you should:

  • avoid contact with poultry
    • avoid chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, quail or close contact with wild birds and places where they are present, such as commercial poultry farms, backyard poultry farms or live poultry markets
    • avoid contact with sick or dead poultry and birds
  • wash your hands frequently and carefully
    • hand washing is one of the most important ways of preventing the spread of infection
    • if soap, clean water and towels are not available, alcohol hand rub can be used
    • avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth unless your hands are clean
  • avoid eating raw or undercooked poultry or poultry products including food containing uncooked poultry blood.
  • seek medical attention as soon as possible
    • if you become unwell with symptoms whilst travelling
    • postpone any further travel until you are well again
  • avoid bringing live birds or poultry products back into the UK, including feathers

Overview of Disease

There are many different strains of avian influenza virus, but the ones that have caused most problems in humans are called H5N1 and H7N9.

Avian influenza infection in birds occurs worldwide. Human infection with these viruses could therefore occur anywhere.

  • Most human cases have occurred in Asia and North Africa:
    • China, Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam have reported the largest number of human cases
  • The risk is greatest where there is close contact between people and potentially infected birds.

The Illness

It usually only takes 3 to 5 days for symptoms to develop after exposure to avian influenza virus.

The illness can vary from being mild to very severe.

Early symptoms are likely to be similar to normal 'flu-like' symptoms such as:

  • high temperature (fever)
  • cough
  • aching muscles
  • sore throat

Occasionally, some people develop other symptoms such as:

  • feeling sick (nausea) or vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • red, itchy eyes (conjunctivitis)

If symptoms affect your breathing; or you begin to feel severely unwell, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible. 

What to do if you have symptoms

After returning home from a country that’s had an outbreak of avian influenza, you should monitor your health, particularly in the first 10 days, and seek medical advice if you develop any symptoms:

  • this also applies if you’ve had close contact with someone known to have avian influenza

Seeking medical advice

Before attending a medical facility in person, you should always call for advice in the first instance. You can call:

  • your General Practitioner
  • NHS 111 (England): Tel 111
  • NHS 24 (Scotland): Tel 111

Make sure you:

  • tell the provider that you may have been exposed to avian influenza
  • provide details of your recent travel history
  • follow the advice that you are given on the call
  • avoid travelling while you are unwell
  • limit your contact with others as much as possible to prevent the spread of any infectious illness until you can be seen
  • follow good respiratory hygiene measures and wash your hands frequently


Antiviral drugs, oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) can be used for treatment.

At present there is no vaccine available for people against avian influenza. In the event of a large outbreak a vaccine could be manufactured within months.

Further information on Avian Influenza

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