Avian influenza, known informally as avian flu or bird flu, is a variety of influenza caused by viruses adapted to birds. The type with the greatest risk is highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Bird flu is similar to swine flu, dog flu, horse flu and human flu as an illness caused by strains of influenza viruses that have adapted to a specific host. Out of the three types of influenza viruses (A, B, and C), influenza A virus is a zoonotic infection with a natural reservoir almost entirely in birds. Avian influenza, for most purposes, refers to the influenza A virus.
Though influenza A is adapted to birds, it can also stably adapt and sustain person-to-person transmission. Recent influenza research into the genes of the Spanish flu virus shows it to have genes adapted from both human and avian strains. Pigs can also be infected with human, avian, and swine influenza viruses, allowing for mixtures of genes (reassortment) to create a new virus, which can cause an antigenic shift to a new influenza A virus subtype which most people have little to no immune protection against.
Avian influenza strains are divided into two types based on their pathogenicity: high pathogenicity (HP) or low pathogenicity (LP). The most well-known HPAI strain, H5N1, was first isolated from a farmed goose in Guangdong Province, China in 1996, and also has low pathogenic strains found in North America. Companion birds in captivity are unlikely to contract the virus and there has been no report of a companion bird with avian influenza since 2003. Pigeons can contract avian strains, but rarely become ill and are incapable of transmitting the virus efficiently to humans or other animals.
Between early 2013 and early 2017, 916 lab-confirmed human cases of H7N9 were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). On 9 January 2017, the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China reported to WHO 106 cases of H7N9 which occurred from late November through late December, including 35 deaths, 2 potential cases of human-to-human transmission, and 80 of these 106 persons stating that they have visited live poultry markets. The cases are reported from Jiangsu (52), Zhejiang (21), Anhui (14), Guangdong (14), Shanghai (2), Fujian (2) and Hunan (1). Similar sudden increases in the number of human cases of H7N9 have occurred in previous years during December and January.
Avian flu or bird flu mainly affects chickens, geese, pigeons, quail and similar domesticated birds. There is also evidence that wild bird populations serve as reservoirs for the virus. The virus can be transmitted directly from fowl to humans leading to serious illness and death. Two characteristics of "bird flu" make it potentially pandemic: (1) it represents a new strain of influenza and (2) people have no natural immune resistance to it. To date it is unproven whether the virus can be transmitted person to person or is solely contracted from direct contact with diseased fowl. The human symptoms of "bird flu" are classic for influenza; sore throat, fever and muscle ache, but can become deadly in the young, elderly or infirm.