Mainland China is in the midst of yet another outbreak of the Asian Lineage Avian Influenza A Virus, or Asian H7N9, and both the Chinese national government and several international organizations are scrambling to take a hold of the situation.
This is the fifth epidemic outbreak of Asian H7N9 since the first case of the virus was reported in March 2013. The present epidemic cycle is its largest epidemic to date: the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that, as of July 19, 2017, 756 human infections from Asian H7N9 have been reported since the epidemic’s onset in March. The most recent report brings the total number of confirmed Asian H7N9 infections to 1,554, where at least 40 percent of afflicted persons died due to consequent health complications.
While both local and international health authorities refute the idea of an Asian H7N9 pandemic and cite that there is no strong evidence that would constitute a global outbreak, it is wise for citizens to be aware of the evolving situation regarding the virus. Here are ten things to know about the virus:
- Most human infections from avian influenza viruses (including Asian H7N9) have occurred after close contact with infected birds, whether alive or dead, and/or exposure to environments that have been contaminated by the virus (e.g. live poultry markets).
- A person can most commonly contract the virus from touching their eyes, nose or mouth after coming into contact with the feces or mucus of infected birds. Poultry infected with the H7N9 virus typically do not show nor experience any signs or symptoms that demonstrate illness.
- On the onset, symptoms of infection start with a high fever and cough. Within a matter of days, several health complications may start to surface. Most cases of death due to Asian H7N9 progressed to very serious illnesses such as severe pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), septic shock and multi-organ failure, leading to death.
- To date, there is no strong evidence for person-to-person spread of the virus. Cases that were reported where the virus appeared to have been transferred from person to person occurred in small clusters (around seven percent of cases). Such cases were also classified as likely limited, non-sustained person-to-person infection, meaning that the virus was only passed down from the animal host to a caretaker and a close contact of that person.
- Victims of Asian H7N9 stretch from all age groups and genders, but most cases confirmed by the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China (NHFPC) involve middle-aged men from the ages of 45 to 50.
- Almost all infections occurred because of contact or exposure to the virus, with the exception of a 33-year-old female from Wenshan, Yunnan province in China, who local authorities said had no apparent exposure or had no close contact with infected poultry.
- Most cases were said to have transpired in Eastern China, but cases have also been reported in Northwestern China, as well as in other countries such as Taiwan, Malaysia and Canada. The majority of cases reported in countries outside of China occurred among people who had traveled to mainland China before becoming ill.
- At the moment, Asian H7N9 has not been detected in the United States. However, in March 2017, federal animal health officials confirmed that a highly pathogenic H7N9 avian flu outbreak struck two farms in Lincoln County, Tennessee. The outbreak occurred at two commercial breeder flocks within three kilometers away from each other, one of them containing around 55,000 birds. However, the H7N9 virus that afflicted this American livestock was not related to Asian H7N9, as all gene segments from genetic tests conducted related the former to North American wild bird lineages.
- The current risk to public health is low; however, the pandemic potential of the virus is alarming, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additionally, the Influenza Risk Assessment Tool (IRAT) rated Asian H7N9 as having the greatest potential to cause a pandemic and potentially posing the greatest risk to severely impact public health.
- There is currently no publicly available vaccine to protect against the H7N9 virus. However, there are medicines available to treat illnesses associated with the virus. The CDC recommends oral oseltamivir (Tamiflu), inhaled zanamivir (Relenza) and intravenous peramivir (Rapivab) for treatment of H7N9 virus infection.
The WHO advises travelers to countries with known outbreaks of avian influenza to avoid poultry farms, contact with animals in live poultry markets and to refrain from entering areas where poultry is slaughtered whenever possible. It also reminds tourists in these areas to constantly wash their hands with soap and water and to follow good food and hygiene practices.
– Bella Suansing