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What is avian flu?

Avian flu is caused by a virus which is similar to the types that affect humans. The symptoms are very similar to regular influenza viruses. They include a high temperature, aching muscles, chills, a cough and headaches.

Some of the sixteen variations of avian flu kill birds including poultry such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys, which are especially vulnerable. The most concerning variation is the deadly H5N1 strain. Since 2003 nearly 600 people have been infected with the virus since 2003. Although infection is rare 60% of the people who catch the virus die.

The newest concern is the H7N9 strain of virus which is similar to H5N1 as it causes the same symptoms and can also infect people. So far it has infected multiple people in China leading to fears of the virus mutating to allow human-to-human transmission.

Unlike many types of human influenza, avian flu is not spread through the air. It is contracted through infected bird droppings and contaminated objects, clothes or vehicles.

How many people have died?

The number of people infected by H7N9 is rising quickly as is the current death toll. At the moment 60 people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus, including a seven year old girl. 13 people have died. The virus is now appearing in areas across the country including the capital, Beijing.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) over a thousand people who have come into contact with those who are infected are being closely monitored for symptoms of the virus. Currently there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission which would signal the possibility of a pandemic.

In January last year it was confirmed that there had been 583 cases of the H5N1 strain in humans with 344 deaths.

What is China doing?

Authorities in Shanghai ordered the slaughter of at least 100,000 chickens, ducks and geese. According to state media, the Hangzhou Carrier Pigeon Association plans to suspend races and vaccinate up to 90,000 pigeons. Last Monday, the WHO said it was talking to the Chinese government about sending some of its experts to the country to help investigate.

However there are concerns that the government has not responded quickly enough or in the right manner. Although the first two victims died on the 4th and 10th of March the government did not announce the disease publicly until the 31st. Ten years after the SARs outbreak, in which 774 people across the world died, China still does not have adequate laboratory or epidemiological capacities which are needed to detect, assess, notify and respond to health emergencies.

Some government officials have recommended a herbal remedy to combat the virus and a member of the People’s Liberation Army, Colonel Dai Xu has blamed H7N9 on America, calling it a “bio-psychological weapon”.

How worrying is it?

Bird-to-human transmission is harder than bird-to-bird and therefore cases are rare. However, the virus is deadly; about half of people who are infected will die.

Health officials in the US have said there is currently no cause for alarm, particularly as no human-to-human transmissions have yet been reported. However, according to Richard Webby, a member of the department of infectious diseases at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, the sequence of the virus appears to have some mutations which could indicate that virus has increased its ability to replicate in humans. However there’s no proof of that and it would need to change further to pass easily from human-to-human. There’s also the concern that two of the people who have caught the virus did have contact with each other. One of the victims of the virus had two sons, both of whom had acute pneumonia and one of which has already died. The WHO’s China representative said, “it raises a lot of concern.”

There’s also the worry that the flu which killed 50 million people within a few months in 1918, was a bird flu which had developed to spread in humans. Humans may have little or even no immunity to a new influenza virus that is significantly different from human influenza strains. An avian flu pandemic could be catastrophic.

Is it treatable?

H7N9 is treatable, (although not curable), with already available antiviral medications. According to The New York Times, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already begun work on a vaccination for the virus just in case although this will take a month to prepare. Chinese authorities are also working to develop a vaccine.

What should people do?

As there’s no cure, although there are treatments, and the chance of death is so high it’s best to avoid catching the virus to begin with. The NHS says there are no travel restrictions to China or other affected countries; however it’s importance to be careful. They advise avoiding live animal markets and poultry farms and contact with animal faeces and following good hygiene practices and wash hands regularly.

For those with mobile phones who wish to be kept updated, the company UpSnap has developed a text messaging service which will inform people when bird flu reaches their area. The information will come directly from the Homeland Security Department, Centers for Disease Control, FEMA and the FBI and will cost about £2.60 a month.