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H7N9 Has Escaped from China

Countries around East Asia are scrambling to prepare for outbreaks of the latest bird flu after a man who traveled to China from Taiwan returned home and fell ill with the virus on April 12th.

This latest patient remains in an isolation room severely ill. Meanwhile, latest reports from China have 22 people dead out of 108 cases reported.

“One of the most lethal influenza viruses we’ve seen.”

At a briefing in Beijing yesterday, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, an assistant director general at the World Health Organization, called H7N9 “definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses we’ve seen.”

He added that “the potential development of human-to-human spread cannot be ruled out.”

That’s because, while there’s no evidence yet that H7N9 is being passed from human to human, many scientists are worried that it may be being passed from birds to other animals who are in contact with humans. Pigs, for example. And the patient in Taiwan told doctors he had not been exposed to birds or eaten undercooked poultry or eggs, raising the possibility that he caught it from another kind of animal – possibly indeed a human.

The Japanese government says it’s now racing to enable local governments to hold suspected bird flu patients in hospitals, and keep them away from their workplaces.

In the journal Nature, Peter Horby of Oxford University’s Clinical Research Unit wrote yesterday:

My colleagues and I consider that H7N9 has many of the traits that make a new flu virus worrisome. The small number of poultry in which H7N9 has so far been detected is rather puzzling, as are the 20% of people infected with the virus who have not reported exposure to poultry.

… Given that the virus probably does not cause severe disease in birds, and the uncertainty surrounding the animal source, containing the animal epidemic poses an enormous challenge.

… The first human case of H7N9 outside mainland China is perhaps only a matter of time.

By the time Horby posted this yesterday, what he’d called “perhaps only a matter of time” had just been reported.