Has bird flu caused significant cases of human illness or death?

Bird flu has infected under 200 people worldwide, compared with millions of birds. Still, over the past dozen years, avian flu H5N1 has made headlines by infecting and killing people in Turkey and Southeast Asia.

In 1997, Hong Kong health officials reported a virulent strain of avian flu, one that for the first time appeared to move directly from birds to people. Along with typical flu symptoms, it also caused eye infections, pneumonia and acute respiratory distress. Tests showed that this strain, influenza A H5N1, was completely new to humans.

Eighteen infected people were hospitalized; six of them died. Government leaders, alarmed at the potential threat of a pandemic, destroyed Hong Kong's entire poultry population-about 1.5 million birds-over the course of three days. Many health experts believe that officials' swift action prevented a flu pandemic.

The H5N1 influenza strain appeared to lay dormant until 2003, when cases of infected birds-along with a few infected people-were reported in Vietnam and Thailand. In December 2004, the disease spread to humans in Indonesia and Cambodia, where about half of the people who contracted the virus died.

Meanwhile, agriculture officials reported extensive infections in domestic birds, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of birds in Asia in 2003 and early 2004. Major outbreaks continue to take place in several Asian countries, and the disease had spread to Europe and Africa by 2006. Early that year, several people in Turkey had contracted the disease, probably from contact with dead birds.

Visitors to Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have been advised to avoid contact with wild or domestic birds and stay away from poultry farms and open-air markets where live poultry is sold.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.