The World Health organisation’s influenza expert Keiji Fukuda said bird flu H7N9 is “one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen” and called the virus “unusually dangerous.”
Last week Fukuda said: “Anything can happen. We just don’t know.”
The virus is about nine times as deadly as the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed 50 million people. (Though, keep in mind that they didn’t have modern medicine.) The virus seems to spread from birds to humans easier than previously feared bird flu, H5N1, which has killed 360 people in the last decade.
The virus could be even more dangerous if it adapts to pass easily between humans, and even worse, if it can spread through the air.
The virus has mutations that make it infect humans, according to virologist Ron Fouchier, who told Laurie Garrett of Foreign Policy that “this virus really doesn’t look like a bird virus anymore; it looks like a mammalian one.”
This comes in the wake of the news that the first case of the H7N9 bird flu outside of China. The patient, a 53-year-old man in Taiwan, was travelling in the Chinese city of Suzhou for work, and started showing symptoms after returning to Taiwan.
He is still alive, but in “severe but stable condition” in the isolation ward at a Taiwanese hospital.
Three of the health care workers who had contact with the patient are showing flu-like symptoms, but authorities aren’t sure if they are infected with the bird flu virus. The 139 people that the man came into contact within Taiwan are being monitored by authorities.
Another worrying sign of the virus’s spread: It seems to have popped up in some animal in Vietnam. There are very few details in the Global Animal Disease Information System, but the report says that national authorities have confirmed a low pathogenic avian influenza that tested positive for H7N9, in Long An, Vietnam. There’s no information on what animal the virus was infecting.
This is the first time that the virus has been found in animals outside of China and Taiwan.
The test for the virus doesn’t appear to be all that effective, only detecting it weakly in even the most severely infected individuals. Only a tiny number of birds have tested positive as well. This means that it’s possible the virus is far more widespread than we thought, because the tests aren’t picking it up.
The total number of bird flu cases as of April 25 is 108 infected, with 22 deaths, according to the WHO. Only nine people who tested positive have rehabilitated enough to be released from the hospital. The rest are undergoing multiple organ failure and aren’t likely to fully recover, if they survive at all.
A vaccine against the virus is at least six weeks away, according to US News & World Report. Then, it will need to be tested on animals before we can try it out in humans.
Asian airports are already checking for fever in passengers, and using infrared technology to detect raised body heat, which could indicate that a passenger is sick.
A major upcoming concern is that China’s biggest travel day, May Day, is approaching and if the virus does indeed pass between humans, the virus could catch a ride of out of the country and spark an international panic.
Here’s the latest Google map of the patients (except the pink ones, which are cases of H1N1). [See an updated map]
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