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What's H5N1 and why are experts concerned?

Publish date: Sat, 20 Apr 2024, 06:38 PM

KUALA LUMPUR: H5N1 avian influenza, which surfaced in China in 1996, has experienced an exponential increase in bird outbreaks and mammalian infections since 2020.

The World Health Organisation said between 2003 and April 1 this year, it had recorded 463 deaths from 889 human cases across 23 countries, with the fatality rate standing at 52 per cent.

On Friday, WHO reported that the H5N1 bird flu virus strain was detected in very high concentrations in raw milk from infected animals.

What is happening?

The world is already in a pandemic alert phase, in which limited or no human transmissions have been recorded.

Human cases of H5N1 infections have been reported in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and China.

What are the symptoms?

Illness in humans from avian influenza A virus infections have ranged from no symptoms or mild illness to severe complications, such as pneumonia requiring hospitalisation, as well as death.

Symptoms may include a high fever exceeding 38°C, along with dry cough, sore throat, nasal congestion or blockage, myalgia or headache, muscle pains and fatigue.

Who or what are affected by the bird flu?

Although avian influenza A viruses usually do not infect people, there have been some rare cases of human infections.

The avian influenza A(H7N9) virus, along with the highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) and A(H5N6) viruses, has been responsible for most human illness due to avian influenza globally, including the most severe illnesses with high mortality rates.

How does one get infected?

Infected birds shed avian influenza viruses through their saliva, mucus and faeces.

Other animals infected with avian influenza viruses may have the virus present in respiratory secretions, various organs, blood, or other body fluids, including animal milk.

Human infections with avian influenza viruses can occur when the virus enters a person's eyes, nose, or mouth, or when it is inhaled.

Preventive measures

The most effective preventive measure is to avoid sources of exposure whenever possible.

Individuals with close or prolonged contact with infected birds or animals or their environments are at greater risk of infection.

If handling infected or potentially infected birds or other animals is necessary due to the nature of the job, use protective equipment, including gloves, an N95 respirator if available, or a well-fitting facemask, and eye protection such as goggles.

Always remember to wash hands with soap and water after touching birds.

Avoid touching the mouth, nose, or eyes after contact with birds or surfaces and materials that may be contaminated with saliva, mucus or faeces from wild or domestic birds.

Dispose used gloves and facemask properly.

Avoid preparing or eating uncooked or undercooked food or related food products, such as unpasteurised milk, or products made from raw milk, such as cheese, from animals with confirmed or suspected H5N1 virus infection.

What to do when you suffer from bird flu?

Antivirals have proven effective in treating avian influenza virus infections in humans, reducing severity and mortality risk.

Resting will provide comfort and enable the body to use its energy to fight the infection.

Avoid contact with others while the infection is contagious, which typically lasts for at least six days after the first symptom appears.

Drink plenty of fluids, and cover the nose and mouth with tissues when coughing or sneezing.

Avoid blowing the nose as it could send infected secretions into the sinuses.

Wipe the nose with disposable tissues and throw them in the garbage bin immediately.

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