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China bird flu cases are surging, in deadliest outbreak since 2009

Recent news headlines have reported a surge in the China bird flu death toll, where in the months of January and February a total of 140 people died from the deadly H7N9 strain of the bird flu virus. The amount of deaths in the first two months of 2017 alone has already surpassed the annual totals of avian flu reported in recent years. In 2010, the H1N1 subtype led to a death toll of 147.

The alarming spike of avian flu recorded in 2017 has thus placed the H7N9 strain of bird flu at the top of the list of pandemic threats from among a dozen avian and animal flu viruses, which has afflicted several hundred people in China for the past few flu seasons, since the first human case was reported in 2013.

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Where did bird flu H7N9 originate from?

First discovered in China back in 2013, the H7N9 strain of bird flu was relatively rare, with about 100 to 300 reported cases each year. However, this flu season has seen a whopping 460 confirmed cases of H7N9, mostly in eastern China. This is quite alarming, considering that the average cases of H7N9 between 2013 to 2016 is around 200.

Avian flu has been around for a long time, and first originated in aquatic birds (e.g. ducks), who occasionally make their way into domestic poultry flocks (e.g. chicken). The virus can then trigger sporadic human infections, usually among people who work within close vicinity of infected poultry, e.g. in wet markets.

In December last year, Hinchliffe and three co-authors published a book titled: Pathological Lives: Disease, Space and Biopolitics, which argued that a number of factors, including selective breeding and the surge in poultry populations, have facilitated the evolution of bird flu. For instance, the use of antibiotics in making birds grow faster has meant that disease tolerance is often compromised.

Most bird flu viruses are not lethal to poultry, as they are what scientists term a “low path virus”, which usually causes no disease or only very mild illness in poultry, e.g. a drop in egg production. H7N9 bird flu was originally, up until recently, a low path virus. However, the virus can evolve and become highly pathogenic if they are allowed to circulate for too long, especially in live poultry markets where birds are crowded into small cages, sometimes for several days. This allowed the virus to mutate and spread to humans.

What’s so alarming about the H7N9 strain of bird flu?

460 cases of H7N9 cases may not sound like a big deal to a lot of people, but here’s a few reasons why you shouldn’t be so sanguine about it:

  1. The H7N9 strain has an alarmingly high fatality rate. 41% of people who get it, die.
  2. In 2017 an evolved form of the H7N9 strain has popped up. As it’s new, the current vaccines don’t work as well against it.
  3. In cases where H7N9 evolves into a high path virus, it can cause illnesses that spread a lot more easily inside the body, thus resulting in more damage and a much higher chance of mortality.

What are the odds that the virus will spread between humans?

Virtually all cases of H7N9 cases have been confined to mainland China, mainly in the provinces of Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Jiangsu. People mainly catch the virus from exposure to infected poultry.

The odds of human-to-human H7N9 bird flu transmission are very low, although this can potentially happen to caregivers or immediate family members with weak immune systems. Further mutations in the virus could also mean that the virus may become more easily transmittable between humans in the future.

What are the symptoms of H7N9 bird flu?

The H7N9 virus causes major respiratory symptoms (e.g. severe pneumonia) that can be life threatening.

During the early stages of an H7N9 infection, people will usually experience the following symptoms, which are much akin to what one experiences with the common flu:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain

In later stages, H7N9 infection causes the following:

  • Pneumonia in both lungs
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Multi-organ dysfunction
  • Septic shock (a medical emergency caused by blood infection)
  • Muscle breakdown

What can I do to avoid catching bird flu?

Since H7N9 and other forms of bird flu are mainly transmitted through exposure to infected live poultry, it’s best advised to avoid going to live bird markets or backyard farms, especially in China. Experts say it’s also important to ensure that all poultry products that you’re eating are fully cooked.

Is there a vaccine available to protect yourself against H7N9?

As of the writing of this article, there’s no vaccine publically available to protect against H7N9, although a number pharmaceutical companies have been working on developing vaccines that are currently being tested in animal and human trials. There are however a few vaccines available for preventing the H5N1 subtype of avian flu, which had its first reported outbreak in humans back in 1997.

Are the illnesses caused by H7N9 bird flu treatable?

Antiviral drugs that are used against common flu viruses are also used to treat people infected with H7N9. These include: Oseltamivir (which is sold as Tamiflu), and Zanamivir (sold as Relenza). The most important thing to note here is that these drugs are the most effective when they are administered at the earliest opportunity possible. Another thing to note is that as H7N9 evolves, it may become highly resistant to these drugs.

Final advice

It’s important to consider securing a comprehensive health insurance plan so that, should you require medical care, be it bird flu related or another medical condition, your costs are covered and you are able to access healthcare at the best private facilities in China and internationally. To learn more and get a free quote, contact the insurance experts at Pacific Prime China today!

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Disclaimer: Pacific Prime China solely represents, operates and manages locally regulated insurance products and services in the territory of PR China. Any references to Pacific Prime Global Company or Group, the international services, insurance products or otherwise stated written or verbally, is for introduction purposes about our overseas network only as each entity is fully independent.

Jess

Content Strategist at Pacific Prime China
Jessica Lindeman is a Content Strategist at Pacific Prime. She comes to work every day living and breathing the motto of "simplifying insurance", and injects her unbridled enthusiasm for health and insurance related topics into every article and piece of content she creates for Pacific Prime.

When she's not typing away on her keyboard, she's reading poetry, fueling her insatiable wanderlust, getting her coffee fix, and perpetually browsing animal Instagram accounts.