Avian influenza is usually an inapparent or nonclinical viral infection of wild birds that is caused by a group of viruses known as type A influenzas. These viruses are maintained in wild birds by fecal-oral routes of transmission. This virus changes rapidly in nature by mixing of its genetic components to form slightly different virus subtypes. Avian influenza is caused by this collection of slightly different viruses rather than by a single virus type. The virus subtypes are identified and classified on the basis of two broad types of antigens, hemagglutinan (H) and neuraminidase (N); 15 H and 9 N antigens have been identified among all of the known type A influenzas.

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