This week China reported the death of a woman it said was the first human to become infected with a new strain of bird flu. While researchers work to learn more about the H10N8 strain of the virus that she acquired, the World Health Organization said the quick notice about the case indicates China has made improvements in tracking deadly outbreaks.
Shortly after visiting a poultry market in Jiangxi Province, a 73-year-old woman died from a new strain of bird flu called H10N8. She passed away on December 6, just six days after she contracted the disease.
Dr. Bernhard Schwartlander, the WHO representative in China, says the quick diagnosis of the bird flu that killed her reflects the increased strength of the country’s surveillance systems.
“The fact that Chinese authorities detected this case in a 73-year-old woman that had other medical conditions actually shows that the active surveillance system, the active alert system, is actually working quite well,” explained Schwartlander.
Earlier this year, some 100 people were infected with the H7N9 strain of avian flu and China responded with increased testing and reporting of similar outbreaks.
The H10N8 virus had previously been detected in Guangdong Province and lived in poultry for many years. The WHO’s Schwartlander said the first fatality from the virus is a worrisome development. “This the first case that we detected the virus in a human being,” he said.
In 2002 and 2003, China came under international criticism for its slow public acknowledgement of the deadly epidemic called SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, that eventually killed more than 700 people. As health authorities tracked the outbreak, officials discouraged the domestic media from reporting on the incident and held back information from WHO researchers.
China’s health systems have improved since, but some experts say the country’s surveillance of laboratory-confirmed infections remains underdeveloped.
The elderly woman who died this week frequently visited live poultry markets and was admitted to the hospital on November 30. She suffered from high blood pressure and heart disease, which likely lowered her immunity.
Authorities have not provided information on whether she was quarantined but say no one who was close to her has become sick. Dr. Schwartlander said authorities need to keep a close watch to see whether the disease spreads.
“Of course we are always concerned when we see that the virus has actually jumped from one species to another. And you have to be very careful watching this because every time this happens it has, of course in theory, the potential for a wider spread,” he said.
Chinese authorities are also closely watching for outbreaks of the H5N1 virus, which has killed 384 people since 2003. Scientists fear the virus could mutate and spread rapidly from person to person.