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Avian & Pandemic Influenza

        The big picture

The difference between human and avian influenza

Influenza is a viral respiratory infection in humans that is more serious than the common cold.  It is commonly called ‘the flu’ and occurs seasonally every year, most often in winter. 

Avian influenza, also known as “bird flu”, is the disease that wild birds and poultry get when they are infected by an avian influenza virus (different from human influenza viruses).  Since 2003, the H5N1 avian influenza virus has been causing severe infection (called highly pathogenic avian influenza) in birds and has spread from Asia to Europe and the Middle East, and now to Africa, affecting over 30 countries.  The H5N1 virus spreads very rapidly through poultry flocks and has a mortality rate among infected birds of 90 to 100 per cent, often within 48 hours.

Fortunately, the H5N1 is still a bird virus. It is easily transmissible among birds but currently does not have the right molecules on its surface to enable it to become a human virus.  However, it has caused a few human infections, as animal viruses can do without being fully adapted to humans.  The H5N1 virus has only caused human infections in a tiny fraction of those exposed to it, and usually requires intense and close exposure to sick birds or their droppings.  There is no evidence to date of sustained human-to-human transmission, which is the chain reaction spread of ordinary human seasonal flu.

Fear, lack of information and understanding about avian influenza, have caused some communities to shun those who have been directly affected or even just suspected of having the disease.

A pandemic results when a new human influenza virus emerges.  It spreads more rapidly and widely than seasonal influenza because of the lack of human immunity to the new virus.  Because the H5N1 virus has caused some human infections, it has shown that it has the potential to become a human virus.  If it evolves into a human virus, it is likely to cause a human influenza pandemic.  How the virus will evolve is uncertain: it could happen suddenly; it could take years; or it might never happen.

The impact of a pandemic is hard to predict, but there will be increased illness because humans will have no immunity to the new virus. Mortality rates are likely to be increased and there may be social and economic disruptions. Children will be directly impacted by infections as well as by the potentially devastating social and economic impacts of a pandemic. Everybody needs to prepare for a possible pandemic.

Children and bird flu

A direct risk to children’s health

Avian influenza is already affecting the lives and livelihoods of families and children in affected areas.  The bird virus has so far disproportionately affected children’s health and survival.

Children account for about half of all reported human cases and a third of deaths from avian influenza to date. 

While it is not known why so many children are being infected by the virus, one potential explanation may be that children, especially girls, often care for domestic poultry by feeding them, cleaning pens and gathering eggs. Children may also have closer contact with poultry as they often treat them as pets.

 If the virus adapts to humans and passes easily between people there is likely to be a massive human outbreak affecting every country in the world.  Children’s life and family security will be seriously threatened since a pandemic would disrupt every aspect of normal life. 

Secondary risk factors for children

The destructive impact of avian flu on children goes well beyond the immediate risk to their health. Outbreaks of avian flu among domestic birds mean that families lose an important source of food and income. This can affect children’s health and threaten their access to education. When income drops dramatically, families sometimes can’t afford to send their children to school or pay for essential health services.

UNICEF in Action

UNICEF is working closely with governments, UN organizations and other partners through the UN Country Teams and other partners to arm families with the knowledge and practices they need to protect themselves and their birds from avian influenza and to be ready to respond to the emergence of a pandemic.

UNICEF is harnessing its extensive on-the-ground networks to deliver critical life-saving messages. In Turkey, where the four resulting deaths from avian influenza were children, UNICEF has activated a 150,000-strong team of volunteers for girls’ education to help spread prevention messages on avian influenza.

UNICEF’s strengths in communication and social mobilization, and its capacity for action at community level are the assets we bring to this concerted UN operation.



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