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Avian Influenza

Avian influenza, sometimes avian flu, and commonly bird flu, refers to "influenza caused by viruses adapted to birds." Of the greatest concern is highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). "Bird flu" is a phrase similar to "swine flu", "dog flu", "horse flu" or "human flu" in that it refers to an illness caused by any of many different strains of influenza viruses that have adapted to a specific host. All known viruses that cause influenza in birds belong to the species influenza A virus. All subtypes (but not all strains of all subtypes) of influenza A virus are adapted to birds, which is why for many purposes avian flu virus is the influenza A virus.

Adaptation is non-exclusive. Being adapted towards a particular species does not preclude adaptations, or partial adaptations, towards infecting different species. In this way strains of influenza viruses are adapted to multiple species, though may be preferential towards a particular host. For example, viruses responsible for influenza pandemics are adapted to both humans and birds. Recent influenza research into the genes of the Spanish flu virus shows it to have genes adapted to both birds and humans; with more of its genes from birds than less deadly later pandemic strains. There are many subtypes of avian influenza viruses, but only some strains of four subtypes have been highly pathogenic in humans. These are types H5N1, H7N3, H7N7 and H9N2.

Genetic factors in distinguishing between "human flu viruses" and "avian flu viruses" include:

  PB2 Amino acid (or residue) position 627 in the PB2 protein encoded by the PB2 RNA gene. Until H5N1, all known avian influenza viruses had a Glu at position 627, while all human influenza viruses had a Lys.
  HA Avian influenza hemagglutinin (HA) bind alpha 2-3 sialic acid receptors while human influenza HA bind alpha 2-6 sialic acid receptors. Swine influenza viruses have the ability to bind both types of sialic acid receptors. Hemagglutinin is the major antigen of the virus against which neutralizing antibodies are produced and influenza virus epidemics are associated with changes in its antigenic structure. This was originally derived from pigs, and should technically be referred to as "Pig Flu".