On Thursday Professor Angus Nicoll, having just returned from an international scientific mission to China last week, said the H7N9 flu outbreak in humans was one that “should be taken extremely seriously and watched closely.”
Nicoll, considered Europe’s leading expert on the flu virus, told Reuters News Agency in a telephone interview from the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), that we are just at the start of a very long haul with the H7N9 virus.
The flu strain has infected 127 people and killed 27 so far, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese health authorities. Nicoll visited Shanghai and Beijing last week with a team of scientific experts, and confirmed what the WHO has been saying about the transmission of the virus.
There is no evidence at this time of the virus passing from person-to-person. If this were to become a factor in the viruses transmission, there would be the threat of a serious pandemic to think about.
In a report published online last week from the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from several public health agencies said that, to date, the mortality rate is 21 percent, and with most of the survivors of the bird flu in China still critically ill, they anticipate the mortality rate rising.
Concern over “imported” cases and viral mutation
Nicoll also said the ECDC and other health organizations around the world should expect “imported cases” to crop up sometime in the future. Citing the Taiwan case on April 24 that involved a businessman who had traveled to China, we can expect other cases with a similar scenario.
The real concern is not the possibility of some isolated cases cropping up around the world. Instead, it is the fact that the virus is rapidly mutating and being spread among poultry populations without making them obviously sick. This one factor alone makes the H7N9 virus a serious threat to world health.
Will we be ready for a bird flu pandemic?
To date, there have been no cases of bird flu reported in the United States. Should the H7N9 bird flu virus mutate to the point it could be spread through person-to-person contact, it could easily spread around the globe. This is because humans have no natural immunity to this particular virus. This very thing has happened three different times in the last century.
With any virus, the ability to make vaccines quickly is usually in our favor. Just as we make new vaccines for the flu every year in this country, it can also be done with the H7N9 virus. It will take some time, of course, and health agencies are at work studying the virus.
One flu expert, John Oxford from Queen Mary University in London, suggests that we work on an antiviral medication that’s effective against many different strains of pandemic viruses. As it is now, the H7N9 virus could take hold without anyone being aware of its spread until it was too late.