Health Service

Avian Flu

Avian Flu / Pandemic Flu Information

Avian influenza, commonly called “bird flu”, is an infection caused by an influenza A virus that occurs naturally in birds. A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. The avian flu has been receiving much attention worldwide as confirmed cases of bird to human transmission have been reported in Asia. Public health authorities are concerned with the possibility of a viral mutation that may permit the avian flu virus to spread from person to person very quickly causing a pandemic.  As a result, many public health and private institutions are preparing in the event of an outbreak. 

Following public health guidelines, WCSU has developed a comprehensive emergency response plan to ensure the health and safety of our university community. We are also following the latest updates through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) websites, as well as staying in touch with our local and State Departments of Health. 


Since 1900, the world has experienced three pandemics and several pandemic threats.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was, by far, the worst the world has seen.  It is estimated that 20-40% of the world population was affected and approximately 50 million people died. 

The Asian Flu pandemic of 1957 was first identified in the Far East and preparations began once the threat of a pandemic was identified.  Increased surveillance along with vaccine production kept the death toll in the United States to about 69,800. Worldwide about 2 million people died.

The Hong Kong Flu pandemic of 1968 was the mildest of the twentieth century. It began in Hong Kong in early 1968 and reached the U.S. by September of that year. Between September 1968 and March 1969 this pandemic was responsible for 33,800 deaths in the U.S. and 1 million worldwide.

Frequently Asked Questions About Avian Influenza

How is pandemic influenza different from avian influenza?

Avian influenza refers to a large group of different influenza viruses that primarily affect birds. On rare occasions, these bird viruses can infect other species, including pigs and humans. The vast majority of avian influenza viruses do not infect humans. An influenza pandemic happens when a new virus emerges that has not previously circulated in humans. The current concern is that the avian H5N1 virus that has been detected in many countries has pandemic potential if it mutates into a strain that is contagious among humans. Once this adaptation occurs, it will no longer be a bird virus; it will be a human influenza virus. Influenza pandemics are caused by new influenza viruses that have adapted to humans.

Which countries have been affected by outbreaks in poultry?

Poultry outbreaks caused by the H5N1 virus were originally reported in eight Asian nations: the Republic of Korea, Viet Nam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Indonesia, and China. Most of these countries had never before experienced an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in their histories. Later, Malaysia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Turkey and Romania were added to the list. Outbreaks in wild and domestic birds are under investigation elsewhere. 

Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Malaysia have announced control of their poultry outbreaks and are now considered free of the disease. In the other affected areas, outbreaks are continuing with varying degrees of severity.

What are the implications for human health?

The first is the risk of direct infection when the virus passes from poultry to humans, resulting in very severe disease with a high fatality rate. In the present outbreak, more than half of those infected with the virus have died. Most cases have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults.

A second risk, of even greater concern, is that the virus will change into a form that is highly infectious for humans and spreads easily from person to person. Such a change could mark the start of a pandemic.

Where have human cases occurred?

In the current outbreak through September 2006 laboratory-confirmed human cases have been reported in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Viet Nam. 

How do people become infected?

The bird to human transmission occurs from direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their feces. Exposure is considered most likely during slaughter, defeathering, butchering, and preparation of poultry for cooking.

Is it safe to eat poultry and poultry products?

Currently, there is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or eggs are a source of infection.

Why are pandemics such dreaded events?

Influenza pandemics can rapidly infect virtually all countries. Once international spread begins, pandemics are considered almost unstoppable. The virus spreads rapidly by coughing or sneezing. The fact that infected people can shed virus before symptoms appear adds to the risk of international spread via asymptomatic air travelers.

The severity of disease and the number of deaths caused by a pandemic virus vary greatly, and cannot be known prior to the emergence of the virus.

What is the status of vaccine development and production?

Vaccines against a pandemic virus are not yet available but clinical trials are currently under way. Because the vaccine has to closely match the pandemic virus, large scale production will not begin until the virus has emerged. Vaccines are produced each year for seasonal influenza but will not protect against pandemic influenza.

Can I travel safely to areas affected by avian flu?

The CDC and WHO are not recommending that individuals avoid travel to affected areas at this time. Both health organizations have posted recommendations regarding safe travel to these regions. Recommendations include avoiding direct contact with birds, poultry and livestock and eating poultry and eggs that have been thoroughly cooked.

In the event of an avian flu, what strategies will help protect us?

In the event of a pandemic, certain public health measures may be important to help contain or limit the spread of infection as effectively as possible. These measures may include:

  • treating sick and exposed people with antivirals;

  • isolating sick people in hospitals, homes, or other facilities;

  • identifying and quarantining exposed people;

  • closing schools and workplaces as needed;

  • canceling public events; and

  • restricting travel.

In addition, people should protect themselves by:

  • washing hands frequently with soap and water;

  • staying away from people who are sick; and

  • staying home if sick.


World Health Organization

Centers for Disease Control