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bird flu

noun [uncountable]

a contagious viral disease originating in birds, especially poultry, with serious symptoms similar to those of flu or pneumonia

'Bird flu is spreading across south-east Asia and could soon pose a far worse threat to humans than Sars, …'

The Observer 25th January 2004

In 2003, the world encountered the term SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a disease which originated in southern China and dominated the headlines as it spread across Asia and subsequently into the UK, US and Canada through air travel, causing over 800 untimely deaths. The beginning of 2004 has witnessed the onset of another health crisis originating in Asia and causing international panic: the illness known as bird flu.

since viruses like bird flu do not usually infect humans, there is little or no immune protection from them in the human population

By mid-February 2004, ten countries in south-east Asia were affected by an outbreak of bird flu, and 22 human deaths from the virus had been confirmed. Although the virus is not thought to spread from person to person, the most likely cause of cases in humans is through contact with infected poultry, and in an attempt to contain the outbreak, more than 80 million birds have been culled in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. The European Union was quick to impose a ban on imports of Thai chicken and eggs, its concern heightened by the knowledge that the recent catastrophic foot and mouth epidemic in the UK was almost certainly caused by pigs being fed infected imported meat. The World Health Organisation has said that the simultaneous occurrence of this highly contagious, fatal bird flu in a number of countries is historically unprecedented, and that rapid elimination of the virus from the bird population should be given high priority, the current situation being a serious concern for international human health, as well as the agriculture and poultry industry.

Background

The more precise medical term for bird flu is avian influenza, which is also known as avian flu or fowl plague. All types of birds are susceptible to the disease, but outbreaks are most common in chickens and turkeys. Bird flu is usually spread through migratory wild birds which carry the virus but do not display signs of the disease.

Symptoms in humans range from colds and flu-like symptoms, such as coughs, sore throats and muscle pain, through to viral pneumonia and other major respiratory complications.

Since viruses like bird flu do not usually infect humans, there is little or no immune protection from them in the human population. If such viruses become able to infect humans and spread from person to person, they could therefore cause a global outbreak of disease sometimes referred to as a pandemic, a term based on the Greek pan meaning 'all' and demos meaning 'people' or 'population'. The word pandemic relates to the more familiar term epidemic (the rapid spread of a disease), from the Greek epi- meaning 'upon'. A pandemic can be defined as a very widespread or global epidemic.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 19th March 2004.

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