Influenza infects many animal species, and transfer of viral strains between species can occur. Birds are thought to be the main animal reservoirs of influenza viruses. Sixteen forms of hemagglutinin and nine forms of neuraminidase have been identified.
All known subtypes (HxNy) are found in birds, but many subtypes are endemic in humans, dogs, horses, and pigs; populations of camels, ferrets, cats, seals, mink, and whales also show evidence of prior infection or exposure to influenza. On the other hand, outbreaks in pigs are common and do not cause severe mortality.
The symptoms following infection with low-pathogenicity avian influenza may be as mild as ruffled feathers, a small reduction in egg production, or weight loss combined with minor respiratory disease.
Since these mild symptoms can make diagnosis in the field difficult, tracking the spread of avian influenza requires laboratory testing of samples from infected birds.
Some strains such as Asian H9N2 are highly virulent to poultry and may cause more extreme symptoms and significant mortality.
In its most highly pathogenic form, influenza in chickens and turkeys produces a sudden appearance of severe symptoms and almost 100% mortality within two days.
As the virus spreads rapidly in the crowded conditions seen in the intensive farming of chickens and turkeys, these outbreaks can cause large economic losses to poultry farmers.
An avian-adapted, highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 (called HPAI A(H5N1), for "highly pathogenic avian influenza virus of type A of subtype H5N1") causes H5N1 flu, commonly known as "avian influenza" or simply "bird flu", and is endemic in many bird populations, especially in Southeast Asia. This Asian lineage strain of HPAI A(H5N1) is spreading globally.
It is epizootic (an epidemic in non-humans) and panzootic (a disease affecting animals of many species, especially over a wide area), killing tens of millions of birds and spurring the culling of hundreds of millions of other birds in an attempt to control its spread. Most references in the media to "bird flu" and most references to H5N1 are about this specific strain.
At present, HPAI A(H5N1) is an avian disease, and there is no evidence suggesting efficient human-to-human transmission of HPAI A(H5N1).
In almost all cases, those infected have had extensive physical contact with infected birds. In the future, H5N1 may mutate or reassort into a strain capable of efficient human-to-human transmission. The exact changes that are required for this to happen are not well understood.
However, due to the high lethality and virulence of H5N1, its endemic presence, and its large and increasing biological host reservoir, the H5N1 virus was the world's pandemic threat in the 2006–07 flu season, and billions of dollars are being raised and spent researching H5N1 and preparing for a potential influenza pandemic.
In pigs swine influenza produces fever, lethargy, sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing and decreased appetite. In some cases the infection can cause abortion. Although mortality is usually low, the virus can produce weight loss and poor growth, causing economic loss to farmers.
In 2009, a swine-origin H1N1 virus strain commonly referred to as "swine flu" caused the 2009 flu pandemic, but there is no evidence that it is endemic to pigs (i.e. actually a swine flu) or of transmission from pigs to people, instead the virus is spreading from person to person. This strain is a reassortment of several strains of H1N1 that are usually found separately, in humans, birds, and pigs.
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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011