China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission recently announced that two people have died from infected with avian influenza — aka bird flu.
What’s especially worrying about this news is that the two people — an 87-year-old man and a 27-year-old man from Shanghai — were infected with the H7N9 strain of the disease, which had not previously been transmitted to humans.
Another woman in the eastern province of Anhui is also currently sick with the strain.
Exactly how well the H7N9 spreads amongst humans is still not clear, though the World Health organisation has said that there is “no evidence of human-to-human transmission”.
One of the men who died has two sons who suffered from acute pneumonia, one of whom died, the Associated Press reports. “We don’t know yet the causes of illness in the two sons, but naturally, if three people in one family acquire severe pneumonia in a short period of time, it raises a lot of concern,” the WHO’s China representative, Michael O’Leary, said Monday.
Shanghai is reported to be upping monitoring after the new outbreak.
Bird flu is a particular cause of concern in China, where chickens and other birds are often kept near humans in tight living conditions. The country has long struggled to deal with the more prevalent H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has resulted in the mass culling of hundreds of thousands of chickens and other birds.
There’s another troubling detail in the new case — some strains of bird flu have been found to be endemic in pigs, and 16,000 dead pigs have turned up in a Shanghai rivers recently, a major source of drinking water for the city. As the 27-year-old victim reportedly worked at a street stall serving pork, there has been speculation that the two are somehow linked.
This is probably a red herring. As noted by Adam Pasnick of Quartz notes, there are currently no signs the H7N9 virus can infect pigs, and the victim contacted the disease weeks before the pigs were found.
However, Chinese citizens have learned to be suspicious during outbreaks. The Chinese government was widely accused of covering up the deadly outbreak of the Sars virus — which left 800 dead across the country — 10 years ago.
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