By Helen Albert, Senior medwireNews Reporter
The H7N9 avian influenza outbreak in China is continuing to spread, although authorities believe that the large majority of those affected did not become infected via human-to-human contact.
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that a number of people in China had been infected with H7N9, a type of flu usually seen in birds, on 1st April 2013, 108 laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus have been reported in the Anhui, Beijing, Henan, Jiangsu, Shanghai, and Zhejiang provinces and municipalities across China. Of those affected, 22 people have died to date.
At the invitation of and in conjunction with the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China, a team of WHO experts has recently arrived in the country and are investigating possible sources of infection, and the best ways to prevent and control the disease.
At a media briefing on 19th April, WHO Representative in China Michael O'Leary commented: "The mission is just getting underway so there are not yet findings to report. At the end, on return to Beijing early next week, the team will discuss its findings and make initial recommendations. China's National Health and Family Planning Commission has said it will release findings from the mission at a later time."
This is the first time this form of influenza has been seen in humans, although human infections with the H5N1 avian influenza have been reported since 2003. According to WHO figures released in March 2013, 622 human infections and 371 deaths from H5N1 have been reported since 2003. Similar to other forms of flu, infection with H7N9 results in serious respiratory illness and death in some cases.
The source of the H7N9 outbreak has not been confirmed, but many (around 50%) infected people have had contact with live poultry. There is little evidence of human-to-human transmission, although this may have occurred in four small clusters (one unofficial) consisting of nine people in total.
O'Leary told the press: "Evidence suggests that poultry is a vehicle of transmission. But epidemiologists haven't yet been able to establish a strong and clear link. However in any case this would not be from eating properly cooked poultry, which is considered fully safe for consumption."
Notably, O'Leary explained that although more than 80,000 birds have been tested so far, fewer than 40 have been found positive for H7N9 and these showed no signs of illness.
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