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Working with highly pathogenic avian influenza virus

What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza is a virus that causes disease in birds. Poultry, pigeons and wild or migratory birds, such as ducks, can become infected with the virus. There are two forms of the virus: high pathogenicity (HPAI) and low pathogenicity (LPAI). Pathogenicity indicates the severity of the disease if the bird contracts the virus.

Is it the same as pandemic flu?

No. When the Government refers to Pandemic flu, it is referring to an outbreak of human flu that affects the global human populations. Human Pandemic flu can occur at anytime and does not require exposure to birds.

What is H5N1 and why is it so important?

The Avian influenza A subtype H5N1 is a highly pathogenic (HPAI) strain of the virus that has been confirmed in poultry populations across Asia, Russia and some southern European countries.

Although this is a disease of birds it has been shown in S.E.Asia that it can (although rarely) be transmitted to humans.

H5N1 is also important because it raises the concern that it could recombine with seasonal human influenza virus and create a new and potentially pandemic human flu strain.

I've been to S.E.Asia recently where there are cases of bird flu - what should I do?

If you work with birds in the UK and you have recently visited countries with bird flu, you need to tell your employer. If you feel ill or have any flu-like symptoms within a few weeks of your return, go to your doctor and tell him/her of the country you visited.

I work with birds, can I catch avian flu?

To date, bird to human transmission of H5N1 has been confirmed in a relatively few cases in Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia. Therefore, if you work with birds that are suspected of having highly pathogenic avian influenza, it is important that you are protected from exposure.

If the virus was transmitted to humans the most likely route would be by breathing in dust and mist generated by infected birds and by not washing hands after handling infected birds or contaminated equipment and clothing. The virus can also be spread between bird houses and farms by moving contaminated equipment or machinery.

If you work in poultry houses, zoos, bird sanctuaries, pigeon lofts, pet shops, quarantine areas, abattoirs or any other environment containing birds, it is important that you use the right equipment and good hygiene methods to protect yourself and your colleagues.

The HSE has worked closely with DEFRA, the DH, the State Veterinary Services (SVS), the National Farmers Union (NFU), the British Poultry Council (BPC) and the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) to develop practical guidance for people working with birds. This guidance tells you what to look out for in your poultry, what to do and who to contact if your poultry becomes ill.

Additionally, DEFRAs website is a very useful source of information on all aspects of avian flu including health & safety information and the avian flu contingency plan.

The Department of Health is offering flu vaccination this winter to those who work in close contact with poultry. This is being done as a precautionary public health measure and does not mean that workers are at any higher risk of getting flu this winter than usual. Nor does it mean that there is an increased risk of an outbreak of bird flu in the UK as this risk remains low. For further information please see the leaflet and Q&A sheet at the links below:

I work with these flu viruses in a laboratory - what controls should I use?

The Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) has issued guidance for laboratory workers handling flu viruses, including highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses. This covers routine work with the viruses, both intentional and diagnostic 1 .

What advice does HSE have for health care workers?

If a patient fitting the definition for a suspect or probable case of avian influenza is admitted to the hospital, clinicians should notify infection control personnel immediately. A risk assessment must be done for all work with the person who has suspect or probable avian influenza, and appropriate control measures put in place to reduce the risk of any healthcare worker who comes into contact with the patient being exposed to the avian flu virus. Infection control measures for inpatients should include:

For further information for healthcare practitioners on handling suspected avian influenza in humans please visit:

Health Protection Agency revised interim guidelines for investigation and reporting of suspected human cases of avian influenza (HPA)

Algorithm for travellers returning from countries affected by avian flu and presenting a febrile respiratory illness

1 The importation and holding of HPAI virus strains (including subtypes H7N7) falls under the responsibility of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Laboratories who wish to import and work with any of these strains need to meet the requirements of the Importation of Animals Pathogens Order 1980 (as amended) and The Specified Animal Pathogens Order 1998. Any genetic modification work with these strains will also be required to comply with the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) Regulations 2000 as amended

Guidance on infectious substances, including Avian flu

The Department for Transport has worked with the Civil Aviation Authority and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to produce guidance on the classification, packaging, labelling and carriage of infectious substances. The document can be downloaded from

This guidance is supplemented by Guidance Note 12 on avian influenza aimed at veterinary and health professionals

Updated 2010-02-09