Bird flu on the loose

A new strain of the infamous bird flu is on the loose in China, and reports as of April 19 say that 17 people have died from it.

Scientists are unsure of how this new strain, called H7N9, does its dirty work. So far, there is no definitive proof that it passes from human to human, but there is at least one case that seems to indicate that it might.

There is also the possibility that H7N9 can infect various mammals, unlike the previous strains, which mostly infected birds. Possible carriers include cats and pigs.

Graphic by Haylie Wise.
Doctors are putting masks on again for the bird flu. Graphic by Haylie Wise.

The main suspect, however, is still avian — in particular, chickens. It’s anything but a sure bet that chickens are the only culprit, however, because Chinese health officials reported that 40 percent of infected people did not report contact with chickens.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidelines for U.S. hospitals to be on the lookout for possible cases of bird flu in people who have recently traveled to China.

This new strain is particularly concerning to researchers, because once it infects a human host, it can cause a disease more severe than most familiar kinds of bird flu.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, top influenza scientist at the World Health Organization, told NPR¬†that “anything is possible” with the H7N9 flu, because it’s so unlike what researchers have seen before.

The good news is that an examination of pig slaughterhouses found no cases of H7N9 infections. While that still leaves researchers wondering what animal is the main carrier, it does give hope that we won’t have to deal with pigs’ ability to carry human, swine and bird viruses at the same time. When multiple strains of such viruses mix inside pigs, they can swap genes and give rise to new strains.

One of the first priorities in dealing with this outbreak is developing a a reliable diagnostic test, according to Dr. Ab Osterhaus at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Until scientists know more, we are left hoping for the best and keeping our thoughts with those in the affected areas.

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