There is a new threat that government officials in the United States are preparing for. It is invisible threat that has no nationality or ideology that can cross borders with ease. It is not a new terrorist group or foreign military weapon, however. Officials are preparing for the newest strain of avian influenza, popularly known as "bird flu."
Avian influenza is a serious concern to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other governmental health authorities. Previous mutations of the flu caused serious pandemics in the past, and thus flu mutations are highly monitored by health authorities worldwide. As more information about the newest bird flu strain emerges, health authorities are gearing up to counter it.
Avian influenza is a subtype of the Influenza A virus that occurs in birds. The previous strain of avian influenza that concerned health authorities was known as H5N1. The World Health Organization estimated that 60% of cases resulted in death for that strain; the total global death toll for H5N1 is 371 people since 2003. Thankfully, avian influenza has never mutated into a pandemic ... yet. The last known pandemic of influenza was H1N1, the Spanish Flu that killed 3-5% of the world's population between 1918 and 1920.
The new strain of avian influenza is known as H7N9. On Tuesday, it was reported that four more died in China, the center of the current outbreak. 31 people have died from the outbreak and 129 are infected according to Chinese health authorities.
The CDC has asked state and local governments to consult plans drawn up years ago for the threat of H5N1. They have come up with a diagnostic test for H7N9. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the test on an emergency basis.
Expert researchers have prepared seed strains of the virus to be distributed to pharmaceutical manufacturers to begin production on experimental versions of a vaccine. And they have been conducting tests on ferrets, which have respiratory systems that are similar to humans, to see the extent to which H7N9 can spread via breath.
H7N9 is of particular concern to health authorities due to a few factors. Dr. Daniel Jernigan of the CDC says that this new strain is very deadly, as demonstrated by the nearly 25% fatality rate. H7N9 also shows some signs that avian flu may be adapting to mammals. For example, it has evolved to thrive at human body temperature, which is much lower than that of the birds. It is not a sign of the disease reaching the final stage of human-to-human transmission but it is a worrying step. An picture of H7N9 taken by electronic microscope can be seen below.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told Reuters Health Summit that the current form of H7N9 could not spark a pandemic. But flu strains mutate rapidly, so what is not deadly today could be a global problem in the future. That is why government health officials have been cooperating to get the current outbreak under control.
Already Chinese authorities have closed down open-air poultry markets in several cities. In poultry farms where an infected bird is found, often the standard process is to just kill all the birds. Such action was taken in Guangdong, where almost 90,000 birds were slaughtered after a single case was detected.
As more information emerges about this bird flu outbreak, government health authorities are preparing to meet the threat head on. Although H7N9 is not a pandemic yet, government officials are treating it seriously enough that clinical trials for a vaccine could begin in the summer. Hopefully there will be no more unexpected surprises with the disease.