News / Health

Increasing Toll of H7N9 Bird Flu Demands Constant Vigilance

Health officials in protective suits transport sacks of poultry as part of preventive measures against the H7N9 bird flu at a poultry market in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, Jan. 6, 2014.
Health officials in protective suits transport sacks of poultry as part of preventive measures against the H7N9 bird flu at a poultry market in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, Jan. 6, 2014.
Reuters
A big wave of H7N9 bird flu cases and deaths in China since the start of 2014 is a reminder that emerging flu strains need constant surveillance if the world is not to be caught off guard by a deadly pandemic.
 
At least 24 H7N9 flu infections and three deaths have been confirmed in the past week by the World Health Organization (WHO), a dramatic increase on the two cases and one death reported for the four-month summer period of June to September.
 
“There's now a clear second wave of this virus,” said Jake Dunning, a researcher at Imperial College London who has been monitoring the outbreak.
 
While the winter flu season means an increase in infections is not unexpected, it also raises the risk of the virus mutating and perhaps getting a chance to acquire genetic changes that may allow it to spread easily from one person to another.
 
The H7N9 bird flu virus first emerged in March last year and has so far infected at least 170 people in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, killing around 50 of them.
 
Many but not all of the people infected have had previous contact with poultry or other birds, so for now, the fact that this virus has apparently not adapted to easy human-to-human transmission is one of the main features keeping a pandemic emergency response on hold.
 
Yet the strain already has several worrisome features, including a limited capability to spread from one person to another.
 
Clusters

Several clusters of cases in people who had close contact with an initially infected person have been reported in China. A scientific analysis of probable H7N9 transmission from person to person, published last August, gave the best proof yet that it can sporadically jump between people.
 
A separate team of researchers in the United States said in December that while it is not impossible that H7N9 could become easily transmissible from person to person, it would need to undergo multiple mutations to do that.
 
Another alarm was sounded, also last month, when scientists said they had found that a mutation in the virus can render it resistant to a key first-line treatment drug without limiting its ability to spread in mammals.
 
WHO chief spokesman Gregory Hartl told Reuters the United Nations health agency had noted the rapid increase in infections in the past few weeks and is keeping a watchful eye.
 
“So far we haven't seen anything that cause us to change our risk assessment,” he said from WHO's Geneva headquarters
 
The WHO's current stance, based on its December 20 assessment, is that five small family clusters have been reported but “evidence does not currently support sustained human-to-human transmission of this virus.”
 
“The current likelihood of community-level spread... is considered to be low,” it says.
 
Flu viruses, however, often put on their biggest show of strength in the cold winter months of January and February.
 
And with more of the virus circulating in wild birds, poultry and in the larger numbers of people infected in China and elsewhere, the new strain now has more opportunity to adapt and mix with other strains that may give it pandemic potential.
 
Mix and mingle
 
Peter Openshaw, director of the Center for Respiratory Infection at Imperial College London, said the rising toll of infections and deaths is “a signal for concern” because “historically what has happened in major outbreaks is there are occasional, sporadic cases and then it starts to build”.
 
“But whether it means that there is any change in the virus' behavior is another important question. If it were changing the way it is behaving, that would be more alarming,” he told Reuters.
 
Early gene analysis work on the emerging H7N9 virus in April last year found it had already been circulating widely but went undetected. During that activity, it had also acquired significant genetic diversity, making it more of a threat.
 
Scientists warned then that its genetic diversity showed the H7N9 virus has an ability to mutate repeatedly and was likely to continue doing so.
 
Dunning noted also that H7N9 is now more likely to meet and potentially mix with other seasonal flu virus strains such as H1N1 and H3N2, which are circulating widely among people in China at the moment.
 
“When you get hybrid viruses forming, that tends to occur in other species, but there is always the potential for it to happen in humans,” he said. “So that is a theoretical concern.”
 
Hartl agreed that the opportunity for the virus to take on more features and capabilities is now greater, but stressed that such changes may not necessarily present fresh dangers.
 
“Mutations happen all the time,” he said. “And while yes, the more virus there is, the more mutations could happen, it's also true that almost all of these mutations are benign.”

You May Like

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid