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What is H5N1 virus?

H5N1 - also called "Influenza A (H5N1) virus" – is an influenza A virus subtype that occurs mainly in birds, is highly contagious among birds, and can be deadly to them. H5N1 virus does not usually infect people, but infections with these viruses have occurred in humans. Most of these cases have resulted from people having direct or close contact with H5N1-infected poultry or H5N1-contaminated surfaces.

Of the few avian influenza viruses that have crossed the species barrier to infect humans, the H5N1 virus has caused the greatest number of detected cases of severe disease and death in humans.

However, it is quite possible that those cases in the most severely ill people are more likely to be diagnosed and reported, while milder cases go unreported.

For the most current information about avian influenza and cumulative case numbers, see the World Health Organization (WHO) avian influenza website.

Of the human cases associated with the ongoing H5N1 virus outbreaks in poultry and wild birds in Asia and parts of Europe, the Near East and Africa, more than half of those people reported infected with the virus did not survive.

Most cases have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults and have resulted from direct or close contact with H5N1-infected poultry or H5N1-contaminated surfaces.

In general, H5N1 remains a very rare disease in people. The H5N1 virus does not infect humans easily, and if a person is infected, it is currently very difficult for the virus to spread to another person.

While there has been some human-to-human spread of the H5N1 virus it has been limited, inefficient and unsustained. For example, in 2004 in Thailand, probable human-to-human spread in a family resulting from prolonged and close contact between an ill child and her mother was reported.

Most recently, in June 2006, WHO reported evidence of human-to-human spread in Indonesia. In this situation, 8 people in one family were infected. The first family member is thought to have become ill through contact with infected poultry.

This person then infected 6 family members. One of those 6 people (a child) then infected another family member (his father). No further spread outside of the exposed family was documented or suspected.

Nonetheless, because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, scientists are concerned that H5N1 virus one day could be able to infect humans and then spread easily from one person to another.

Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population. If H5N1 virus were to gain the capacity to spread easily from person to person, an influenza pandemic (worldwide outbreak of disease) could begin which would likely result in a very high death toll.

No one can predict when a pandemic might occur. However, experts from around the world are watching the H5N1 situation in Asia and Europe very closely and are preparing for the possibility that the virus may begin to spread more easily from person to person.

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