Avian Influenza: Fact Sheet and Advice for Travellers

[Related article: South Africa not at greater risk for birdflu, says Poultry Association]

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported on the possibility of a human flu pandemic following outbreaks of bird flu (also known as Avian flu) in some countries. This fact sheet explains why the WHO and other governmental and non-governmental organisations are concerned about the possibility of a pandemic.

Since January 2004, over 60 human deaths in Asia have been confirmed as resulting from Avian influenza. Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, South Korea, North Korea, Pakistan, Thailand, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Romania and Croatia have all suffered confirmed outbreaks in poultry or wild birds. The cases of human infection are believed to have resulted from direct contact with infected poultry. However, medical experts warn that a virus with the capacity to be transmitted from person to person, through mutation of especially the Avian influenza virus H5N1 is a distinct possibility and could lead to a global pandemic.

There are no specific restrictions for travellers to any of the countries affected by the Avian influenza yet. Travellers to regions where outbreaks have been reported should exercise caution. You should seek expert medical advice before travelling, check on the latest travel advisories and take appropriate precautions.

The latest information relating to the countries affected, possible prevention and treatment measures and other Frequently Asked Questions, can be found on the World Health Organisation website at:

http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/en/

The following fact sheet information provides more information on Avian flu:

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/avian_influenza/en/index.html

Further enquiries may also be directed to Mr. Shaun Smith at the National Department of Health. His contact details are as follows:
telephone number: + 27 12 312 0722
facsimile number : +27 12 312 0535 or 312 0635 and
e-mail address : smiths@health.gov.za.

To date, most human cases are thought to have acquired their infection following exposure to dead or diseased birds. Evidence suggest that particularly risky exposure occurs during the slaughter, de-feathering, and preparation of poultry for cooking.

You should not eat dishes made with bird blood or any other raw or inadequately cooked poultry products. Proper cooking destroys the avian influenza virus. Poultry should be cooked until all parts reach an internal temperature of 70°C. No cases of avian influenza have been linked to the consumption of thoroughly cooked poultry and egg products.

Antiviral drugs are reported effective in treating this type of flu but its use before or during a pandemic is not straightforward and the effect may be limited if the virus develops resistance to the drugs.

Advice for South African travellers

The Minister of Health has recommended the taking of influenza antiviral medication as a possible precautionary measure. In this regard travellers to and residents in affected areas should consult their family doctor, pharmacist or travel clinic for medical advice and further guidance.

Currently there is limited availability of influenza antiviral medicines in South Africa. In this regard, South Africans travelling abroad both on business and holiday purposes are responsible for securing their own supply of influenza antiviral medicines. South African diplomatic and consular missions abroad will therefore not be in a position to provide antiviral medicines in affected areas.

In this regard, South Africans must be aware that consular assistance, should an outbreak occur, will be severely constrained by local health conditions and possible restrictions on travel. South African travellers, business persons and long term residence in affected areas should be prepared in these circumstances to take responsibility for their own safety and wellbeing.

In the event that the threat of either human to human transmission or sustained transmission appears serious, South Africans in affected countries may have to consider leaving while those planning travel to affected areas are recommended to reconsider their need to travel.

In addition, it is recommended that you should:

  • Avoid visiting live animal markets and poultry farms
  • Avoid contact with surfaces contaminated with animal faeces
  • Not eat or handle undercooked or raw poultry, egg (or duck) dishes
  • Not attempt to bring any live poultry products back to South Africa

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