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

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.