Avian Influenza: What You Need to Know

Understanding the H5N1 virus and how to stay safe.

Chickens in a field
Source: iStock.com

H5N1, often referred to as the “bird flu” or “avian influenza,” is an infection caused by a virus that is commonly found in birds. Currently, it is also prevalent in dairy cows in several states, including Michigan. In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans or other animals, often leading to respiratory distress. While anyone who is around birds or dairy cattle can get the virus, people working closely with animals, such as those working with poultry, waterfowl and livestock are at an increased risk.

While H5N1 is common among birds, particularly wild birds, it is still rare that humans contract the disease. Since it was first discovered in 1997, there have been less than 1,000 cases in humans worldwide and, as of May 2024, only four of those were in the United States. Of the four cases, two occurred in Michigan. It is most commonly spread through direct contact with an animal with the virus, its body fluid or feces, or a contaminated surface. Humans cannot get H5N1 from commercial milk or properly cooked poultry and eggs.

However, symptoms to look for in humans are similar to other influenzas and include fever, cough, muscle aches, general fatigue, sore throat, nausea or vomiting and shortness of breath. In severe cases, avian flu has been linked to serious illnesses including pneumonia, sepsis, brain swelling and respiratory failure. If you have been around birds or dairy cattle recently and feel like you are getting the flu, it is important to be evaluated by a healthcare professional. Though most people who contracted H5N1 in the United States had mild symptoms and recovered quickly, the worldwide mortality rate is about 50%. Beginning antiviral treatment as soon as possible after symptoms start is an important step in reducing that risk, as well as reducing the risk of passing it on to other species. In some cases, antiviral treatments can be given as a precaution to prevent getting the illness if a person feels like they were potentially exposed.

Help finding a doctor:

If you need help finding a doctor, try searching for primary care physicians in your area that are highly recommended, search your insurance provider’s website for doctors in your network, or ask for recommendations from friends and neighbors. There are also search engines that can help you narrow your search based on region and specialty needed.

Where can you find vaccines?

To find a vaccine, check with your primary care physician, local health departments, pharmacies, and clinics. You can also visit vaccines.gov to locate a vaccine clinic near you.

If you would like to learn more about vaccines for preventive health, check out Michigan State University Extension’s Michigan Vaccine Project to find links to event schedules, podcasts, publications, webinars, and videos relating to vaccine education.

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