With Chinese New Year on its way, some health experts are worrying about a recent surge in bird flu cases across China. The H7N9 virus, first seen in humans last March, has infected at least 73 people since the beginning of 2014. These new bird flu infections take the H7N9 case total to more than 219: meaning that in less than a month, flu incidences increased by 50 percent.
Why the sudden jump in bird flu? One reason might be the weather. Speaking about the issue of H7N9 in China, World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl said that when temperatures drop flu cases will increase, hence the large amount of new bird flu cases. Although cold weather will not directly cause a virus to spread, icy temperatures and dry air can cause nose and throat mucus to become dry, thus debilitating one of the body’s protective shields against a virus.
But more so than the winter, a major concern voiced by Hartl and others is the possibility that increased travel over the Chinese New Year period will spread the H7N9 virus to new parts of the country; due to trains crowded with human passengers and their poultry. Most H7N9 patients reported recent contact with chickens and other farm birds, leading scientists to conclude that the virus spreads as a result of being in close quarters with these animals.
Chinese New Year may also lead to further avian flu infections as revelers visit live animal markets to buy birds for dinner. H7N9 has been deemed “highly virulent” by the World Health Organization, meaning that even limited exposure to infected poultry could cause illness. Indeed, some experts believe that the already high number of flu cases this year is due to preparations for Chinese New Year’s celebrations.
Luckily, it appears that human-to-human transmission of H7N9 is quite uncommon, or even impossible; a fact that scientists say has helped limit the spread of the virus. The most commonly known strain of bird flu, H5N1, is also thought to be non-transmissible from one person to another: in both H7N9 and H5N1, the virus must pass from poultry to human.
However, at least one case in China indicates that human-to-human transmission of H7N9 may have already occurred. In August 2013, the British Medical Journal reported that a woman in China had died of the H7N9 virus, after caring for her father who was infected with the same disease. The woman’s father had visited a poultry market one week before coming reporting symptoms of the flu, but the woman herself had had no recent exposure to live poultry. When doctors examined both patients’ blood, they found that father and daughter were suffering from identical flu strains – adding evidence to the theory that the daughter must have contracted her illness from her father.
Although this human-to-human transmission in China appears to be an isolated incident, medical workers fear that the recent surge in bird flu cases will give the virus a chance to mutate, which could lead to more instances of H7N9 being passed from one person to another.
The possibility of person-to-person bird flu spread is especially worrisome to health care and political leaders who remember the damaging effects of SARS. From 2002 to 2003 in China and other parts of Asia, nearly 800 people died as a result of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). More than 8,000 cases of SARS were reported throughout the region, and the disease spread to at least 27 individual countries.
Why did SARS cause a pandemic, whereas bird flu has not? Human-to-human transmission. A large number of SARS cases resulted from health care workers contracting the illness and then passing it on to other patients, and crowded areas in southern China and Hong Kong also led to the rapid spread of SARS. Because the virus is thought to have originated in an animal, probably bats, the pandemic caused by SARS remains an alarming example of the damage caused when viruses mutate to spread from human to human.
Following the SARS pandemic, the Chinese government received harsh criticism for its early attempts to cover up cases of the illness. Many international authorities said that it was this lack of information dissemination that led to such an astonishing amount of SARS transmissions and fatalities. Since then, China has made big efforts to keep local and international groups informed of virus incidences. By all accounts, the first cases of H7N9 seen last April in China were reported immediately, and since then it appears that health authorities such as the World Health Organization have been kept informed of new flu cases and of fatalities.
In order to keep H7N9 under control during the Chinese New Year celebrations, Vice Premier Liu Yandong has already announced that local health care and other public workers should be aware of the bird flu risk, and take action to prevents its spread. The Vice Premier also said that as a country, China would continue to work toward developing a bird flu vaccine an researching other ways to stop the disease. Along with this, Liu Yandong promised that monitoring standards within the poultry industry would be strengthened.
Already, live poultry markets in many Chinese cities have been shut down. Shanghai is planning to stop the trading of live poultry for at least three months, and cities in the Zhejiang Province (which saw 12 fatalities in January) will shut their poultry trade as well as engage in farm inspections.
In mainland China’s southern neighbor Hong Kong, the effects of SARS still influence public health and sanitation policy. When the first cases of bird flu were coming to light in early January, Hong Kong’s Food and Health Secretary Ko Wing-man told residents to be cautious during their Chinese New Year preparations and travel, but added that there would be no need to ban imports of live chickens from the mainland. However, the Hong Kong government recently announced that all sales of live chickens have been ended. Despite Ko Wing-man’s statements, the city will also be prohibiting any poultry import from mainland China, along with disposing of 20,000 birds that were brought into the city before the trading suspension began.