H7N9: A poultry problem?

by Peta Heinrich
Posted: April 10th, 2013 | Updated: April 3rd, 2014 | Comments

Bird flu in China: While you'd be well advised to steer clear of places like this...

China is certainly no stranger to food and public health scares and has seen a string of bizarre incidents including chemically-altered, glow-in-the dark meat; pork injected with polluted water and exploding watermelons caused by Jiangsu farmers getting heavy-handed with growth hormone. But when things turn deadly, as with the melamine-laced milk scandal, the SARS epidemic and outbreaks of swine and bird flu, it's no laughing matter. Given past experience, China residents could be forgiven for reacting with concern over the recent emergence of H7N9, a new strain of bird flu. Fears of a pandemic have caused citizens to break out the face masks and avoid all manner of foods from pork to poultry in fear of infection. But before we get ourselves into a flap, here's an attempt to set the record straight and separate fact from fiction....

H7N9: the facts

24 cases of H7N9, a new strain of bird flu until recently not seen in humans, have so far been reported in China's eastern provinces, with 11 in Shanghai, eight in Jiangsu, three in Zhejiang and two in Anhui. The death toll has so far reached seven including five deaths in Shanghai, but as yet no cases have been reported outside of China. Symptoms of the strain have included fever and coughing with most infected patients developing severe pneumonia, but a common source of exposure for the human infections has not yet been identified, and there is currently no vaccine. Nevertheless, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), links have been found between most victims and live poultry markets where the virus has been detected, indicating the likely source of transmission is direct contact with infected birds.

Pork and poultry off the menu?

With the discovery of 16,000 diseased pig carcasses dumped in the Huangpu River in recent weeks, rumors have surfaced that the porkers are somehow linked to the emergence of the virus. Reports that one 27-year-old victim had worked at a Shanghai pork stall before his death have also done nothing to allay fears. But the WHO has indicated no connection either between pigs or the pigs in the river and human cases of influenza.

[pullquote]The WHO also said it is safe to eat properly cooked meat including poultry and poultry products, with no samples from local poultry farms testing positive for the virus.[/pullquote]

The WHO also said it is safe to eat properly cooked meat including poultry and poultry products, with no samples from local poultry farms testing positive for the virus. Nevertheless, over the weekend feathers were ruffled on the Shanghai Metro when live birds, including a chicken, were found riding the subway. Disgruntled passengers called Metro security inspections into question, prompting the operator to ask passengers to report poultry or live birds to staff or call police. Shanghai residents are also being advised to report neighbors raising chickens or pigeons to authorities via a hotline.

A blast from the past....

The new virus brings back memories of SARS, which infected more than 8,000 people and killed over 700 worldwide in 2002 and 2003, including several hundred people on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. After being criticized in 2003 for an initial cover up and attempting to hide sick patients, the Chinese government has this time been credited by the WHO for reacting somewhat more promptly. So far Shanghai authorities have banned all live poultry trade in local markets and ordered the slaughter and incineration of over 100,000 birds to prevent the virus spreading. Trade in live poultry has also been suspended in Nanjing and Hangzhou. Investigations are underway to track the origins of infected birds, and hundreds of people who have come in close contact with infected poultry or affected patients are being monitored. Reagent testing kits have been distributed to 409 flu-monitoring sites across the country, and China has begun research into an H7N9 vaccine which would be used only if evidence of human-to-human transmission emerged.

A pandemic?

"... there's no cause for panic just yet.

 While the WHO said efforts were still being made to identify the exact source of the infection, there was no sign of sustained spread of H7N9 or of human-to-human transmission. Since 2003, 622 cases of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza resulted in 371 deaths, a 60 percent mortality rate. Yet of these, only around five instances of human-to-human transmission were reported, the majority associated with contact with infected poultry. While it's true that a significant portion of those affected with H7N9 have died or become critically sick, the WHO and China's National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) have urged citizens not to get too worked up. With the relatively small number of infections, it said there are currently no wide-ranging public health implications. According to Dr Michael O'Leary,  the WHO representative in China, "... this is not a time for overreaction or panic." Chinese officials and WHO have suggested practicing good hygiene, using medical face masks and avoiding contact with sick or dead animals as the best ways of preventing infection. So while it's wise to tread with some degree of caution and keep away from poultry markets as investigations continue, let's keep our feathers on... for now....

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