by Kimberly Allen, RN
There’s a new strain of Bird Flu making the news. The new strain, called H7N9, has been reported in multiple cities in China. So far at least 20 people have been affected with diagnosis confirmed with lab tests. Of those diagnosed, 6 have died and 4 are critically ill. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a statement telling US residents not to panic because the new flu strain is so far only in China (there are no cases in the US – yet.)
Though the H7N9 bird flu has not reached the US there are some serious concerns with this new bird flu. To this point those that have lab confirmed H7N9 bird flu contracted it from contact with infected poultry, so far there are no confirmed cases of human to human transmission. And while the CDC warns that people don’t panic it also states that this type of virus “has the potential to become a pandemic if it changed to become easily and sustainably spread from person to person.” The CDC has also issued an advisory for clinicians to be alert to the possibility of H7N9 infection in people that have recently returned from China and present with severe respiratory illness. A travel advisory has also been issued since the report of 6 possible cases were reported in Taiwan.
Health officials are concerned about the virulence of the H7N9 virus especially with the number of deaths and critically ill people compose half of all confirmed cases. With such a high mortality rate health officials state this virus must be taken seriously. The WHO has also issued a report that states the H7N9 virus has the ability to readily mutate and adapt to be able to grow and spread through humans. This means the H7N9 has evolved from avian viruses making them much more dangerous.
There is also a concern that the number of people with H7N9 is significantly higher than reported. Some believe that the test being used in the labs to detect the H7N9 virus are defective. The concern is that even the sickest patients including those that have died only had “weakly positive” test results. If even the patients that are dying are testing only weakly positive something isn’t right with the testing. This could mean several things. For one thing if the tests are not showing positive until the patients are critically ill how many cases are the tests missing before it’s critical? Which means the H7N9 virus may be much more wide spread than believed. This is of particular concern for the people that had close contact with those that have already died or are critically ill. In fact there have already been reports that one of these people, that the WHO is watching closely, has already demonstrated flu like symptoms. However, the test indicated negative results. If the tests being used are defective then not only that person but others as well could have the virus. Which would also mean the H7N9 virus has mutated to spread between humans. That could be a very dangerous turn of events. There have also been numerous reports of animals becoming ill with the H7N9 virus, however, the tests have been negative. Again if the tests are defective the potential danger is is significant.
So far all the confirmed cases have been in China, however, with the capability of international travel and the possibility that the testing is flawed the situation definitely bears close watching. There are no significant steps you can take to prevent infection at this time and the current flu vaccine does not cover the H7N9 virus. The health officials at the CDC are maintaining close contact with the authorities in China tracking the virus.