Hong Kong – January 2014 – Towards the end of 2013, a 39 year old resident of Guangdong province in China, named Mr. He began suffering from flu symptoms. Mr. He – a furniture factory owner, had always enjoyed good health, so he took it as a normal flu attack, without worrying much. However, a few weeks later his condition worsened drastically, leading him onto a ventilator, where he remained as a vegetable for nearly 20 days, before dying in the hospital.
This was just another case of a newly emerging Avian Flu virus known as H7N9. Typically, the avian flu virus has jumped from birds to humans, thus it is also known as Bird Flu. This new strain of Bird Flu has attacked the humans for the first time in 2013.
During recent weeks, China has been experiencing a sharp rise in such cases, which is a cause for concern among the medical experts. The health authorities are worried about the rising pace of such infections, during the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations, which is also a peak time for travel activities and poultry sales. The Lunar New Year is one of the biggest annual human migrations on the planet as most Chinese travel to spend the nearly two-week holiday with their families.
According to a recent report on CNN by Andi Wang & Katie Hunt; The strain was first reported in Shanghai in February 2013, and since then it has affected 246 people in mainland China, according to Hong Kong’s Department of Health. The World Health Organization says that 56 patients have died from the disease. The number of cases decreased after May 2013, only to peak once again during late 2013. Like all flu strains, H7N9 cases increase during colder months.
Figures released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control reflect that: In January 2014 alone, 19 deaths and 96 human cases have been reported — rivaling the initial wave of H7N9 cases seen during March 2013. After the diagnosis of some cases in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, the two neighboring states of China have begun culling 20,000 chickens, because a sample of live chicken imported from mainland China have tested positive for H7 viruses.
The CNN report added that; According to the WHO, most of the human cases were exposed to the H7N9 virus through contact with poultry or contaminated environments, such as live bird markets,
The Head of infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong – Dr. Kwok-Yung Yuen has warned that; “When the chickens are very overcrowded, at the time of festivals like Christmas, Chinese New Year, and there are no bio-security measures taken, then the virus spreads through poultry very quickly. It’s also possible that travelers will bring live poultry back to their own villages.”
A spokesman for World Health Organization – Gregory Hartl has stated that; “The WHO does not plan to issue a special advisory ahead of the holiday. The WHO has also warned that: “Further sporadic human cases are expected in affected and possibly neighboring areas, especially given expected increases in production, trade and transport of poultry associated with the upcoming Lunar New Year,” the WHO warned.
‘Stringent measures needed’
The H7N9 virus appears deadlier than the seasonal flu, but less virulent than another bird flu strain – H5N1, with a crude 30% mortality rate, said Yuen, who has worked on major outbreaks including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and H5N1. He said the key is to implement sanitation measures at the live poultry markets. He drew parallels of the current situation in China with the first case of H5N1, which appeared in Hong Kong in 1997.
The Hong Kong government implemented rules such as requiring regular cleaning of transport cages, mandating a rest-day when no live poultry would be allowed at the marketplace and ordering all unsold birds at the market to be killed in the evening.
Yuen said; Such measures are crucial to avoid the spread of the virus. There will be an increasing number of cases in the coming February to May unless the mainland government takes more stringent measures to stop this spread.”
According to Xinhua reports: Live poultry trading has been halted in three cities in the hardest-hit province of Zhejiang in eastern China. In Shanghai, the live poultry trade will shut down between January 31 to April 30, in order to prevent spread of bird flu.
However, not all H7N9 patients have had close contact with live birds, including the case of He, whose cousin said his closest poultry contact was eating chicken at a restaurant. On January 19, a 31-year-old Shanghai doctor died, marking the first medical worker death from the strain. The doctor, according to Xinhua, appeared to have limited exposure to poultry or a contaminated environment, Infection of health care workers is closely watched because it might indicate human-to-human transmission in a medical setting.
WHO sources have also stated that; “Sometimes we just don’t know the source. Not having exposure to poultry doesn’t equate human-to-human transmission. H7N9 does not appear to transmit easily among humans. Family members who’ve seen their loved ones suffer from H7N9 describe a long, harrowing illness, that resembled pneumonia.
Another Chinese citizen – Zhang Kewei has stated that; his 57-year-old father, who lived in eastern province of Zhejiang, was diagnosed as having H7N9 after developing a 104 degree Fahrenheit fever in November. He did not survive. Kewei further said that her father initially felt cold and had a fever and later, the oxygen level in his blood dropped to 40 per cent.