New Bird Flu H7N9: How dangerous is it?


Beware the New Bird Flu (photo: wikipedia)

Beware the New Bird Flu (photo: wikipedia)

Until a few days ago, most of us had never heard of influenza A (H7N9), the new bird flu virus that’s suddenly killing people in China. According to Forbes, on April 1st the death reports started to come in, and all of a sudden health experts began to sound awfully nervous.

That’s because although the virus has infected a very small number of people, it’s killed or critically sickened a high proportion of them.

The toll is rising daily, with new cases and deaths reported on the World Health Organization’s Disease Outbreak News site. As of today, 18 cases were laboratory confirmed, but of those infected, six have died and four are in critical condition.

I don’t have to tell you that a flu that kills or critically sickens more than half of those who contract it must be taken very seriously.

 

A Genetic Threat

The virulence of the H7N9 virus is not the only reason health officials around the world are scurrying to figure out the scope of the danger it poses. Genetic evaluation of the H7N9 virus shows it has the ability to mutate readily. Here’s how the World Health Organization (WHO) put it in a statement  released yesterday: “analysis of the genes of these viruses suggests that although they have evolved from avian (bird) viruses, they show signs of adaptation to growth in mammalian species.”

 

Should the U.S. Worry About Catching the H7N9 Avian Flu?

Right now, not much. All the cases have been in China, either in Shanghai or the nearby provinces of Jiangsu and Anhui. And so far, H7N9 has not been found to be transmissable from human to human. All those who’ve contracted it have had contact with poultry. Both pigeons and chickens have tested positive for the virus.

As Forbes.com’s Russell Flannery reported yesterday, all poultry markets in Shanghai were closed yesterday as Chinese officials try to stop the spread of infection. Poultry dealers also began killing chickens from markets where birds had tested positive for the virus.

However, that could change. According to the CDC, however, this type of virus has “the potential to become a pandemic if it changed to become easily and sustainably spread from person to person.” Yesterday the CDC issued an official public health advisory on H7N9 under the auspices of emergency preparedness and response.

The CDC advises clinicians to be on the lookout for H7N9 in “patients with respiratory illness and an appropriate travel or exposure history.” In other words, if you come down with severe flu symptoms and you’ve recently been to China, let your doctor know right away.

There’s also the issue of the virus travelling with people who are already infected. Yesterday, six possible cases of H7N9 were reported in Taiwan. All were tested; four were found not to be H7N9 and two have yet to be confirmed.

 

Know the Signs of Avian (Bird) Flu H7N9

Most of the people identified with the new bird flu have had symptoms of severe pneumonia such as chest congestion, difficulty breathing, fever, and severe cough. However the case reports are so recent that experts don’t believe they have a full picture of all possible symptoms.

Yesterday the CDC began issuing guidance to public health clinics and hospitals in the U.S. on how to test for the H7N9 virus. In a teleconference yesterday afternoon, CDC officials said they have already developed a diagnostic test that’s available for use on “travelers with suspicious illnesses.”

20,000 chickens were killed in Shanghai to prevent the spread of the virus

How is Bird Flu H7N9 Treated?

The good news is that like other influenza A viruses, H7N9 appears to respond to the antiviral drugs Tamiflu (oseltamivir), made by Genentech (Roche), and GlaxoSmithKline‘s Relenza (zanamivir). Both Tamiflu and Relenza have been used to combat past bird flu outbreaks. However, there has also been concern that widespread use of Tamiflu could spur the development of drug-resistant viral strains.

 

Forget the Flu Shot

It’s great if you had one, but it won’t help you in this case. There is no vaccine for H7N9 right now. Health officials will begin developing one, but that will take time.

 

Is It Safe to Travel?

Yes, to anywhere other than southern China. As regards that area, use your own discretion. But practically speaking, around there world there are no airport closures, inspections, or controls in place.

The primary concern is the H7N9 flu getting out of China. Therefore, passengers leaving China and arriving in other countries are being asked to report flu or flu-like symptoms. In Japan, signs have gone up in airports asking passengers disembarking from China to seek medical attention if they have suspicious symptoms. On flights in and out of Hong Kong, announcements asked passengers who were feeling sick to notify airport personnel or flight attendants.

 

What About Eating Chicken?

The chicken you buy at the grocery store is safe to eat. The normal rules apply, of course: always wash your hands thoroughly after handling, thoroughly clean and disinfect all handling surfaces, and cook meat all the way through. But would I go to a high-volume commercial poultry farm right now? Probably not. If you’re lucky enough to have your own backyard chickens, there’s no need to worry about them.

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