The news out of China about the new strain of bird flu that has emerged in that country is troubling both researchers and the public at large. Those who remember the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009 — which was non-lethal in many cases, but still killed over 18,000 people worldwide — are acutely aware of the risk associated with such flus.
This new avian influenza threat has been named H7N9, and to date is responsible for a reported 14 documented cases in humans and six deaths. According to an article in SFGate, at least one person who was said to have come in contact with a deceased H7N9 patient is now reporting a fever. In order to get a better grasp on H7N9 and the potential worldwide repercussions of an outbreak, SFGate turned to noted virologist Dr. Pedro Piedra of Texas’ Baylor College of Medicine, as well as sources like the World Health Organization. Dr. Piedra says of H7N9:
It’s a type of bird flu virus that normally circulates amongst avian populations with some variants known to occasionally infect humans. This is the first time this variant, H7N9 has infected humans, meaning it must have made some genetic leap that would allow it to do so. We don’t know [why H7N9 is now infecting humans] as the source for these infections has not yet been pinpointed. However, through the process of mutations, these viruses that commonly circulate in birds occasionally adapt to be able to grow in other mammals, including humans.
Looking for more information about H7N9? Read our info page: H7N9: What You Need To Know.
Talking to Dr. Piedra about H7N9 also makes another thing very clear: reliable information about the new strain is not yet available to researchers. For example, doctors don’t yet know if this strain of avian influenza can be passed from human to human, or whether those that have been infected have all come into contact with an animal suffering from the virus. According to Dr. Piedra it is also not known how pathogenic the virus is, although it must be noted that the majority of documented H7 strains have been associated with milder diseases. When it comes to treatments, the World Health Organization recommends antivirals like zanamivir or oseltamivir. However, it remains to been seen if such treatments will be effective with this new bird flu strain.