By Katie Nelson
Well this all sounds very frightening. The H7N9 bird flu virus, which has presently killed 22 people and infected up to 108 others (the most recent case was confirmed in Tawain on Wednesday), is being declared by the World Health Organization as one of the deadliest strains of influenza yet discovered. Even worse, health experts are saying that much is still unknown about the virus, specifically, its potential to spread.
“This is one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen so far,” said Dr Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization (WHO) assistant director-general for health security.
“We are at the beginning of our understanding of this virus,” he told reporters while speaking in Beijing among top health experts from around the world, “[it is] an unusually dangerous virus for humans.”
Recent reports are noting that the H7N9 virus appears to spread more easily to humans than SARS did during its outbreak nearly a decade ago.
Within the short span of a month since its first confirmed case, the figures surrounding H7N9 deaths and infections have reached alarming rates.
According to Foreign Policy:
The H7N9 flu now evolving before Humanity’s eyes in China has killed 18 percent of the 108 people with lab-confirmed infections as of April 22. That’s a lethality about nine times the mortality rate of the Great Influenza of 1918-19, which claimed at least 50 million lives by lowball estimate, and up to 100 million based on extrapolation from colonial-era records in India and African countries. (There is no consensus regarding how many people perished in China in 1918.)
While researchers are racing against a ticking clock to study the lethal virus, the H7N9 strain continues to allude them. There is still no confirmed consensus on whether or not the virus is spread through human-to-human contact, and since the virus’ incubation time is unclear, it is hard to pinpoint when exactly patients contracted it, and from which host.
“Evidence so far is not sufficient to conclude there is person-to-person transmission. Moreover, no sustained person-to-person transmission has been found,” Dr Fuduku said.
Yet, on April 17, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said itself that at least three cases of the virus were likely caused by human-to-human transmission. As Foreign Policy reports:
The CDC’s Zheng Guang then said, “people infected with H7N9 can transmit virus…they could possibly infect others.” Worried about the public response to that news, Zheng hastily added, “People don’t need to panic, because such limited human-to-human transmission won’t prompt a pandemic.”
That being said, many experts have stopped referring to the virus as an avian flu due to the absence of disease in birds.
“This virus really doesn’t look like a bird virus anymore; it looks like a mammalian one,” Ron Fouchier, a Dutch researcher, told Foreign Policy’s Laurie Garret.
However, even if the virus is transmittable through humans, it’s no reason to pack up and flee the country just yet.
“These startling clinical numbers point to a very dangerous, lethal virus — but one that is still hard for people to get, or to spread to other people,” Laurie Garret writes.
Also, China’s forecast is getting consistently warmer, “which might provide a bit of a respite and buy them some important time, since H7N9 — in common with other influenza — spreads less easily in the spring and summer,” reports NBC.