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Avian Flu: Information for Parents

Children may hear about avian flu at school or on TV and may have questions. This information will help parents and caregivers talk to children about the situation while helping to calm any of their fears.

About Avian Flu:

Avian influenza, or bird flu, refers to a form of flu that affects birds as the primary target rather than people. Influenza viruses occur naturally among wild birds (especially wild water fowl such as ducks and geese), and can infect domestic poultry and other birds and animals.

How Avian Flu is Spread:

Infected birds shed flu virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. The virus spreads when susceptible birds make contact with contaminated secretions or surfaces. Avian flu viruses do not normally infect people. However, human infections with avian flu viruses have occurred, generally following direct or close contact with sick chickens, ducks, or turkeys. You cannot get bird flu from eating fully cooked poultry products such as chicken, turkey, or duck.

The Current Situation:

Several new strains of avian influenza were detected in Canada and the United States in 2014. So far, no human infections with these viruses have been detected. These strains are different from the bird flu strains that have infected and killed hundreds of people in South East Asia over the past 15 years. Like all forms of avian influenza, none of these viruses are easily spread from person to person. Learn more about the current situation here.

Precautions to Prevent Infection:

The best way to prevent infection with avian flu viruses is to avoid sources of exposure.

What you can do:

  • Wash your hands. In general, birds carry a lot of diseases besides bird flu, so it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after being around birds or bird feces. Don't rub your eyes or touch your nose or mouth while handling birds or bird feces.
  • If you or your child finds a sick or dead bird, check with your state health department, state veterinary diagnostic laboratory, or state wildlife agency for information about reporting dead birds in your area. If you are told to get rid of the dead bird, use gloves or an inverted plastic bag to place the bird in a garbage bag. This bag can be placed in your regular trash. Encourage children to avoid handling or moving sick or dead birds. Tell them to notify an adult if they come upon a sick or dead bird.
  • Do not touch birds at a farm or a market, or wild birds in parks or forests. This point is especially important to stress to curious young children!
  • If you have a pet bird, make sure to keep your pet and its food and water inside, away from a place where they could be exposed to any infected birds. Make sure to keep your bird cage clean and wash your hands after playing with or petting your bird. 
  • Cook all poultry (domestic or wild) prepared for meals thoroughly in order to eliminate the risk of infection.

Don't underestimate existing flu strains!

As previously mentioned the risk of getting avian flu is very rare, but the risk of getting seasonal influenza is greater. Don't forget to get your child's and your own seasonal flu vaccination. This will not prevent infection with avian flu viruses, but can reduce the risk that a person would become infected simultaneously with both human and avian flu viruses. Simultaneous infections can theoretically lead to more dangerous mixed strains.

How Avian Flu is Diagnosed:

Avian flu virus infection in humans cannot be diagnosed by clinical signs and symptoms alone; laboratory testing is required. Avian flu 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. However, tests to identify avian flu viruses are not generally available in doctor's offices or commercial laboratories.

Signs and Symptoms of Avian Flu:

The reported signs and symptoms of avian flu can include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle aches
  • Pneumonia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Acute respiratory distress
  • Respiratory failure
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Sometimes neurologic changes (altered mental status, seizures)

Treatment Options for an Avian Flu Infection:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends oseltamivir, peramivir, or zanamivir for treatment of human infection with avian flu viruses.

Additional Information & Resources

Last Updated
Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council (DPAC) & Section on Infectious Diseases (SOID) (Copyright © 2015 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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