Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Virus

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Wisconsin actively monitors for human cases of avian influenza and has plans in place to respond, if necessary. Currently, there is no imminent threat to Wisconsin since there is little evidence of sustained human-to-human spread of the bird flu in other parts of the world. It is difficult to predict if a bird flu virus will become a pandemic, but Wisconsin has plans in place to respond to that possibility, regardless of the source. You may also visit flu.wisconsin.gov for more information.

Avian flu is caused by influenza viruses. The strain of flu that occurred in recent years was called H5N1, which circulated in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. These flu viruses occur naturally among birds, which they carry the viruses in their intestines but usually do not get sick from them. However, bird flu is very contagious among birds and can make some domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks and turkeys, very sick and can kill them.

The avian flu strain that caused the outbreak can spread from birds to people and cause serious illness and even death. There is a chance that the virus could mutate to a new flu virus that spreads easily from person to person. Because infections with new human flu strains can't be prevented by the annual flu vaccine, no one will be immune to the virus. Making a safe vaccine that can prevent infection with a new human virus can take months to manufacture.

Birds act as hosts to influenza viruses by carrying the virus in their intestines and shedding it in bodily fluids, such as saliva, nasal secretions and feces. Other birds become infected when they come in contact with these fluids. Humans can become infected through contact with infected poultry or contaminated fluids.

Symptoms of avian influenza in humans range from typical influenza-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches) to eye infections, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, viral pneumonia and other severe and life-threatening complications.

The virus circulating in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East has not mutated to a point where it could easily spread from person-to-person. It's difficult to predict if - or when - that might happen, or if it will result in an influenza pandemic. The people who have gotten the bird flu in those areas of the world have been in direct contact with infected birds.

Health care providers will tell patients how to treat their illness, depending on the severity of their symptoms. Treatment may include hospitalization, supportive care and/or the use of antivirals. Studies have shown that one antiviral drug called Tamiflu (oseltamivir) may possibly protect against the H5N1 strain of influenza.

Yes, it is safe to eat poultry that has been fully cooked. General precautions should always be taken when handling any raw meat, including raw eggs, to avoid possibly spreading germs. These measures include:

  • Washing hands and surfaces before and after food preparation.
  • Avoiding using the same utensils on raw meat as on other foods, even cooked meat.
  • Cooking raw meat thoroughly.

Note: The U.S. bans imports of poultry from areas where birds are infected with the H5N1 virus.

Additional resources

Contact information

Thomas Haupt, Influenza Surveillance Coordinator
Wisconsin Division of Public Health 
Bureau of Communicable Diseases
Phone 608-266-5326
Fax 608-261-4976

Wisconsin Local Health Departments - Regional offices - Tribal agencies

Last Revised: January 10, 2017