Date: 26 April 2013 Time: 09:44 PM ET


Influenza A H7N9 as viewed through an electron microscope. Both filaments and spheres are observed in this photo.
Influenza A H7N9 as viewed through an electron microscope. Both filaments and spheres are observed in this photo.

Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies and is a regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, where this article first ran before appearing in LiveScience’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

It’s time for the world’s public health officials to pay very close attention to the new bird flu outbreak in China first detected in March. To put it bluntly, there are now some seriously dangerous developments occurring around the new disease outbreak in China that infectious disease specialists and international public health specialists need to track closely.

Let’s start with three new developments reported on earlier this week by Jason Koebler, U.S. News & World Report’s science and technology correspondent:  the first reported case of the new bird flu strain outside China; the fact that any potential vaccine tests in animals (not humans) may be up to six weeks out; and, more ominously, that Chinese officials suspect that there may be cases of human to human transmission in the 100-plus reported cases (which include 22 deaths). [Bird-Flu Update: Possible Cases of Human-to-Human Transmission Investigated]

“The situation remains complex and difficult and evolving. When we look at influenza viruses, this is an unusually dangerous virus for humans,” Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization’s assistant director-general for health security, said Wednesday at a briefing.

Chinese officials —and public health officials around the world —had hoped that this potentially virulent and deadly bird flu strain (H7N9) could be contained inside China and that it would not progress or mutate to the point where humans could transmit the strain to other humans. But, of the patients analyzed so far, half appear to have had no contact whatsoever with poultry.

Now, with the first reported case outside China appearing in Taiwan this week — a 53-year-old male, Taiwanese citizen who worked in the Jiangsu Province in China, developed symptoms three days after returning to Taiwan, according to Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center —and the fact that Chinese officials are publicly saying that at least some of the existing cases may have involved human-to-human transmission, this new bird flu strain could spread —and fast. [New Bird Flu Virus: 6 Things You Should Know]

None of this is good.

Right now, 18 percent of the cases in China have ended in deaths. While this is still less deadly than the previous avian flu outbreak in China six years ago —the H5N1 bird flu virus eventually killed more than 300 people after spreading from China to other countries in 2006 —the death rate for this new Chinese bird flu epidemic is more than triple the mortality rate of tuberculosis in China today.


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