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

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs