China is currently dealing with a strain of avian flu that has so far sickened more than 100 individuals and caused the deaths of over 20 people. The virus is officially known as H7N9, and Chinese officials have confirmed that there has not been any evidence of person-to-person transmission. Before last month, this version of the virus was very common in birds, but wasn’t detected in humans.
Efforts to Stop the Spread
Coverage of the event on Forbes.com reported that although health officials have not yet been able to link contact with poultry as a possible risk factor for contracting the flu, the region’s poultry market has suffered losses of over $2 billion because of consumer fears. The Chinese government has assured the public that cooked meat is safe, but has taken actions including the slaughter of some animals and banned the trading of live birds in affected provinces.
Currently, the virus is most prominent in the eastern part of China, but even there, officials stop short of saying that it’s time to consider massive measures of killing and disposing of potentially infected birds. Authorities are also keeping a close eye on more than 1,000 people who have confirmed they have been in close contact with others who either become sick or died after exposure. Fifteen international experts from the World Health Organization now in China conducting a detailed assessment to determine proper measures moving forward, especially since it’s still not clear how the disease is spreading.
Genetic Diversity May Pose an Additional Threat
The World Health Organization says that there’s no evidence to indicate that the virus will move quickly among human population, calling current cases “sporadic.” However, an article from the Reuters news agency discussed how a group of nine Dutch and Chinese scientists examined data from the H7N9 variety and found that in these early stages, it is already characterized by a greater amount of genetic diversity than what was seen in previous strains of avian flu.
Specifically, scientists believe that the virus has the ability to mutate several times, which could eventually make it more transmissible among humans. Although research is ongoing, this strain of the virus is thought to be comprised of a mixture of genes from three types of avian flu strains that are commonly found throughout Asia. Researchers say that such diversification could quickly pose a large-scale public health risk.
Symptoms and Treatment of H7N9
Although no cases of H7N9 have been reported beyond China’s borders, experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun advising doctors in the United States to look for telltale signs including high fever and a cough, noting that these symptoms can quickly progress to more severe problems like pneumonia. Extreme cases cause patients to suffer from organ failure and muscle breakdown, but things have gotten even more complicated lately thanks to a few reported cases that are presenting in asymptomatic ways.
As more information becomes available about the virus, proactive measures beyond watching for symptoms will likely become apparent. For now, a company called NanoViricides believes that its oral and injectable versions of a drug called FluCide may eventually prove effective against the H7N9 strain.
Tracy Rentz is a blogger for the University of Southern California that offers several degrees options in the health field.