News of bird flu infections have been rocking our collective false sense of security lately. But is there any sense in worrying?
News of the avian (“bird”) flu virus strain A(H7N9) has been rocking Chinese residents’ collective sense of false security lately. The first infection of humans by this strain of the virus was documented in 2013, and it has shown up during the winter and spring every year since then.
This year, however, seems to be a particularly infectious. Xinhua reported on February 23 that since the beginning of this year, there have been at least 270 human infections and 87 deaths. SCMP wrote yesterday that fatalities resulting from bird flu this year actually now 94. There were also cases of infection and death reported in late 2016.
In order to control the spread of the virus, the Chinese government has issued a series of blanket bans on live poultry sales in Guangzhou (Guangdong province), Suzhou (Jiangsu province), Xiamen (Fujian province), cities in Hunan Province, cities in Sichuan Province, and rural live poultry markets in Zhejiang province. Poultry markets and farms are also being closed for cleaning and quarantine, in efforts to make reduce environments in which the A(H7N9) virus can thrive.
Currently, the primary cause for bird flu A(H7N9) infection by humans is exposure to live poultry. This means that people who handle live birds or their freshly butchered carcasses—such as breeders, merchants and butchers at live poultry markets, and home or commercial cooks who handle the poultry—are particularly susceptible. Consumers are urged to avoid purchasing live or freshly-slaughtered poultry, and to choose chilled or frozen poultry instead. Regardless, SCMP reports that some consumers take issue with that regulation, resorting instead to purchasing fresh poultry meat on the live chicken black market.
The World Health Organization writes that there is currently no evidence that the consumption of thoroughly cooked poultry or eggs will cause transmission or the virus to humans. Improperly cooked meat (especially if it is bloody) may result in transmission. The A(H7N9) bird flu virus does have the potential to mutate so that it can transmit from human to human, rather than bird-to-human; however, this has so far been thought to have occurred only in rare instances when a caregiver or doctor is exposed to a bird flu patient for a prolonged period. In other words, you don’t need to worry about getting the bird flu from another person, as much as avoiding eating undercooked poultry and poultry that came from an unmonitored source.
Science Magazine published an article on February 17th about the current status of this bird flu strain, citing notable virologist Guan Yi, saying that the major danger of the A(H7N9) strain is that it does not produce serious symptoms in birds, but can make people very ill. At this stage, Guan is reported to have said, “It is too late to contain the virus in poultry.” In any case, the advice for people generally remains the same: do not resort to purchasing poultry on the black market, avoid live and freshly butchered birds, and thoroughly cook all poultry meat.
Cover image from xjpeace.cn