What is the pathophysiology of avian influenza (H5N1) infection?

Updated: Aug 07, 2020
  • Author: Hien H Nguyen, MD, MS; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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To date, avian influenza (H5) remains a zoonosis. The vast majority of cases of avian influenza have been acquired from direct contact with live poultry, with no sustained human-to-human transmission. Hemagglutinin type 5 attaches well to avian respiratory cells and thus spreads easily among avian species. However, attachment to human cells and resultant infection is more difficult.

Avian viruses tend to prefer sialic acid alpha(2-3) galactose, which, in humans, is found in the terminal bronchi and alveoli. Conversely, human viruses prefer sialic acid alpha(2-6) galactose, which is found on epithelial cells in the upper respiratory tract. [17] Although this results in a more severe respiratory infection, it probably explains why few, if any, definite human-to-human transmissions of avian influenza have been reported: infection of the upper airways is probably required for efficient spread via coughing and sneezing.

Most human deaths from bird flu have occurred in Indonesia. Sporadic outbreaks among humans have continued elsewhere, including China, Egypt, Thailand, and Cambodia. [18]

In theory, however, mutation of the hemagglutinin protein through antigenic drift could result in a virus capable of binding to upper and lower respiratory epithelium, creating a strain that is easily transferred from human to human and thus could cause a worldwide pandemic.

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