Last year, the world was gravely concerned about the possibility of a global Bird Flu pandemic and it seems that those fears have been re-ignited after reports of Bird Flu victims are on the rise in China.
However, this new outbreak is troubling many doctors and researchers because this new strain is not showing up in birds.
The lack of infected birds is leading researchers to theorize that the strain may have mutated into a strain that can infect mammals. If so, not only will China have to increase efforts to keep the virus from spreading, but the rest of the world will have to be on the lookout for the new strain.
Banning Chicken Sales
The virus in question, H7N9, has currently infected 49 people in China, 11 of which have died. Though the virus was known to infect pigeons throughout the country, this is the first time that it has shown up in humans.
One major issue of this strain is that it can apparently be passed from bird to bird without actually making them sick. This makes the virus very difficult to track.
To date, China is aware of the virus infecting wild migratory birds; however, it does not appear to have infected any of the chickens available in any number of open markets. However, since the virus may not necessarily make the poultry sick, China has put halt on chicken sales. Yet, banning poultry may not be enough to contain the virus.
Preventing the Spread of H7N9
According to some researchers, focusing on poultry may not help to prevent more cases of H7N9 due to the fact that the virus may be mutating to infect mammals, which is unprecedented.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine:
“Infection of poultry with influenza A subtype H7 viruses occurs worldwide, but the introduction of this subtype to humans in Asia has not been observed previously.” (1)
This unprecedented mutation could point to the reason why the virus is currently showing up in people, but cannot be found in poultry.
After studying the H7N9, researchers have discovered a number of mutations that cause them to be concerned. One such mutation, Substitution Q226L, is known to enable the avian flu to infect ferrets. This mutation is a cause for some concern because, according to Avian Influenza:
“In the case of H2 and H3 pandemic viruses, Substitution Q226L was essential for the acquisition of human-like specificity . . .” (2)
Another mutation, PB2 E627K, enables the virus to survive in humans when it otherwise could not.
“Mutations E627K and D701N in the PB2 protein have previously been identified as determinants of avian and pandemic influenza virus virulence in mammals.” (3)
However, these finding are only preliminary and are not a guarantee of a worldwide pandemic.
Researchers contend that there is no evidence that the virus is being transmitted from human to human and people should not panic. Richard Webby, director of a World Health Organization flu center states, “At this stage it’s still unlikely to become a pandemic. We should be concerned (but) there’s no alarm bells ringing yet.” (4)
According to Dr. Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist, “I wouldn’t say a pandemic is more likely than it was a year ago. The only thing we can do as virologists right now is to point out the interesting characteristics of the virus, try to get to the bottom of this story and try to stop further infections.” (5)
Though the virus does appear to be mutating, it does not appear that we should go into panic mode, yet. Virologists are studying these mutations to fully understand the effects.
Even though there is the potential for a pandemic, preliminary findings seem to indicate that a global pandemic is unlikely. Regardless, an avian bird flu that can be transmitted from bird to bird without causing them to be sick, but has the ability to infect humans is a scary thought.
References & Image Credits:
(1) New England Journal of Medicine
(2) Avian Influenza. H. D. Klenk, M. Mikhail N. Matrosovich, Jürgen Stech. Pg.146
(3) Microbiological Processes: Advances in Research and Application. Q. Ashton Acton.
(4) Associated Press
(6) ILRI via photopin cc
(7) RachelH_ via photopin cc