By Simon Peter Katongole
At the start of 2017, hundreds of White-winged Black Terns were found dead on the shores of Lutembe Bay on Lake Victoria in Uganda. These birds nest in central Asia and southeastern Europe, and migrate to Africa to escape the northern winter. Tests on some of the terns were positive for avian influenza, also called bird flu or avian flu. Five domestic ducks and a hen in Masaka district, west of Kampala, were also infected, according to Uganda’s Agriculture ministry. In response, Kenya and Rwanda banned the importation of poultry and eggs from Uganda.
Worldwide, about 40 countries reported new outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry and wild birds since November 2016, according to WHO (World Health Organization). In Europe and Asia, thousands of infected poultry are being culled. In China, some human infections have been reported.
Why we need to be cognizant of bird flu
Ugandans were urged to be watchful against bird flu after a suspected outbreak on the shores of Lake Victoria. Tests that were carried out among the dead birds at the National Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Entebbe confirmed that indeed the birds had died of bird flu. Several outbreaks have occurred worldwide with the first being reported in Hong Kong in 1997. In Africa, outbreaks have previously, been reported in Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. This is a disease of public health importance worldwide and creates urgency among governments. Therefore, the public needs to be aware of it.
What is bird flu?
It is scientifically known as Avian influenza. It is caused by infection with viruses of the Avian Influenza type A. there are various types of these viruses that occur naturally among wild birds living around water bodies such as ducks, geese, swans, gulls, shorebirds and terns. However, these viruses can infect domestic birds such as hens, ducks, turkeys, geese and other domestic animals such as pigs. The Avian flu viruses do not normally infect humans. However, human infections with avian flu viruses have occasionally been reported. The H5N1 strain is the most deadly type of the bird flu virus with 50 per cent of victims dying. The less deadly avian influenza viruses usually cause illness in poultry without symptoms and birds and can go undetected.
How do humans get infected with bird flu?
The virus cannot be passed from human to human. Humans can catch bird flu when they come into direct contact with live infected birds. Those who work with infected chickens are most at risk. The infected birds discard the influenza virus in their saliva, mucous and feces. People may breathe in these viruses in droplets or through dust when the droppings dry out. They may also get the viruses after touching something that has virus on it then they touch their mouth, eyes or nose. Rare human infections with some avian viruses have occurred most often after unprotected contact with infected birds or surfaces contaminated with avian influenza viruses. However, some infections have been identified where direct contact was not known to have occurred. However, the infected chickens may die without showing any symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
Infected individuals may develop a high fever, aching muscles, headache, severe sickness, a cough and a sore throat, conjunctivitis (red eyes due to inflammation of the conjunctiva, the white of the eye). These symptoms may manifest after two to seventeen days of the infection. Infected birds typically show sudden swelling around the eyes and ear lobes. Illness in humans ranges from mild to severe. More than 700 people from 15 countries have been infected with H5N1. About 60% of these people have died.Avian influenza A virus infection in humans cannot be diagnosed by clinical signs and symptoms alone; laboratory testing is required. Avian influenza A virus infection is usually diagnosed by collecting a swab from the nose or throat of the sick person during the first few days of illness. This specimen is sent to a lab; the laboratory looks for avian influenza A virus either by using a molecular test, by trying to grow the virus, or both.
Should we stop eating chicken?
No. There is no evidence that cooked poultry can infect people. Proper cooking of poultry and eggs kills the avian influenza. You need to be in close proximity to live, infected birds to catch the virus.
What should I do if I find a dead wild bird?
If you find a dead wild bird, or a group of dead birds in a small area contact a Veterenian. Do not handle dead birds yourself unless it is essential to do so. People involved in poultry farming are advised to be watchful about the health of their birds. In an emergency or suspected outbreak, they should plan ahead how they will be able to isolate their birds from wild birds. Call in a veterenian to assess the details in the event of an illness of the birds or after seeing unusual signs and symptoms.
Preventing Human Infection with Avian Influenza A Viruses
Avoiding possible sources of exposure with infected poultry is the best way to prevent infection with avian influenza. Getting an influenza vaccination will not prevent infection with avian influenza A viruses. However, it can reduce the risk of co-infection with human and avian influenza A viruses. Anyone who has had contact with infected birds may be given influenza antiviral drugs preventatively. The influenza antiviral drugs are 70% to 90% effective in preventing influenza virus
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