New deadly bird flu in China has US officials worried about epidemic

Teresa Tanoos's picture
U.S. concerned about spread of bird flu in China
Advertisement

According to a report published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the first of three patients in China to contract a new strain of bird flu have died, concerning U.S. officials that an outbreak could ensue, causing people to become severely ill with pneumonia, septic shock, brain damage and multi-organ failure.

In a companion piece to the article, Dr. Timothy Uyeki and Dr. Nancy Cox, both of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote that it “is possible that these severely ill patients represent the tip of the iceberg.”

Chinese officials say the report details the early days of an outbreak in China, which has so far infected at least 40 people in four Chinese provinces with a new influenza A virus, H7N9, which has never before been seen in humans. In the last two months 11 of those infected with H7N9 have died.

All of the 11 who died had preexisting health conditions, and two had been exposed to chickens at live poultry markets the week before they became ill. They became ill between Feb. 18 and March 13. They died between March 4 and April 9 from severe complications, according to the report. The victims included two men, ages 87 and 27, both from Shanghai, as well as a 35-year-old woman from Anhui.

According to scientists in the U.S., the virus has been traced to a re-assortment of genes from wild birds in east Asia and chickens in east China, which they say “raises many urgent questions and global public health concerns.”

Advertisement

The scientists are particularly concerned that this new virus has the potential to cause severe disease because it has genetic characteristics that indicate it may be better adapted to infect mammals, as well as humans, than other bird flu strain – and humans have no resistance to it.

Moreover, the virus doesn’t make birds sick, so it may spread far and wide, going undetected until people become ill. Plus, earlier vaccines against other H7 strains did not result in strong immune responses in humans. Nevertheless, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that they received specimens of the virus from China on Thursday and were rushing to create a vaccine, although that could take several months.

Meanwhile, the CDC has urged local health authorities to watch for sick travelers from China. Health officials say approximately 10 people who recently traveled to the U.S. from China have been tested for H7N9 due to suspicious symptoms, although none of them were found to have the new virus, which scientists said remains contained in China so far.

Regardless, U.S. researchers say that vigilance remains high.

“We cannot rest our guard,” they said.

SOURCE: New England Journal of Medicine, Human Infection with a Novel Avian-Origin Influenza A (H7N9) Virus (April 11, 2013DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1304459), Global Concerns Regarding Novel Influenza A (H7N9) Virus Infections (April 11, 2013DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1304661); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Advertisement