The traditional flu season brings its usual warnings and trials every year. We are used to its symptoms, line up for vaccinations (or not), and suffer through our own sickness or the complaining of our coworkers. Yet we tend to ignore the real damage it does - millions of people are incapacitated and thousands die each year. Familiarity with the disease certainly has bred contempt, but also has made it easy to discount.

When the SARS mass outbreaks of the post-9/11 era took place, the world definitely took notice. As you recall, Toronto and Hong Kong shut down, and it took nearly a year for the Pacific Rim business cycle to recover. As cases of avian influenza popped up the next year, the mass media was quick to proclaim it the next global pandemic - but that didn't happen, and since then "bird flu" stories don't usually get reported on in the Western media (except for 2015's bird-only epidemic in North America). Yet it's still a serious concern - bird flu outbreaks happen every winter in Southeast Asia, and dozens of humans do die from it each year.

Bird Flu, while difficult to catch, has a frighteningly high mortality rate - about half of the cases in the 2015-2016 season - and strikes healthy people. Before you panic, though, know that this virus has a significant difference from the influenza strains that strike us every year: so far the H5- and H7-series variants have been very difficult for humans to contract.

The people who have come down with this disease have common traits that you almost certainly do not:

  • They either live with poultry, or spend a lot of time in markets with them. (We don’t mean they live on a farm with chickens in a separate building; they literally have birds living in the same rooms they sleep and eat in.)

  • The birds often have some connection / contact with wild or migratory fowl, not necessarily their same species. The disease can jump from bird to bird easily. (No evidence yet that it can jump from human to human, and we hope it stays that way.)

  • They frequently handle bird excrement, dead animals, and often prepare & cook the birds they’ve been exposed to otherwise.

According to the World Health Organization, from March 2013 to October 2015, 667 cases with 229 deaths were recorded worldwide of the H7N9 virus; nearly all of them in China. Consider the millions of people who were potentially exposed, and you can see that the transmission rate is extremely low.

 Photo by  Christopher  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Christopher via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Your odds are pretty good. However, common sense says you should limit your possible exposure:

  1. While there isn't a human vaccine available against the current strains, do get your annual shots, because people fighting something else are more susceptible to having H5-/H7-strain infections.

  2. If you tour “live markets”, give the poultry stalls a wide berth. Better still, just don't go to the markets where live animals are being sold.

  3. Should you have the chance to take a trip into the countryside, stay out of poultry barns.

  4. Don’t let your children pet or play with birds, even the ones at the park.

  5. Wash your hands frequently.

  6. If you believe you have been served undercooked chicken, don’t eat it just to be polite. If the food seems “wrong,” it is.

Be sure to talk with your medical provider about this subject as part of your pre-trip checkup and inoculation process. (We aren’t doctors.) Avian influenza is not “just the flu,” but it is also not a trip-canceling plague.