China requests international help to deal with bird flu outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Tuesday that an international team of flu experts from America, Europe and Australia will fly to China within a week to help with investigations into an outbreak of the deadly H7N9 bird flu virus. The team of eight medical experts – including four from the WHO – are going in response to a request from Chinese health authorities, a spokesman for the U.N. agency said. The team will carry out a week-long study, WHO spokesman, Glenn Thomas, said during a news briefing. “They will look at the situation on the ground and try to get a bit more understanding of the behavior of the virus and what kind of investigations should be done,”

Influenza A(H7N9) is one of a subgroup of influenza viruses that normally circulate among birds. Until recently, this virus had not been seen in people. However, human infections have now been detected.

This new strain of bird flu has so far killed 14 of the 63 people known to have been infected, but so far no human-to-human spread of the virus has been confirmed. More than a thousand close contacts of the confirmed cases are being closely monitored.

So far, there is very little information about the scope of the disease the virus causes or about the source of exposure. H7N9 is of concern because most patients have been severely ill. On Saturday, Chinese authorities announced that a seven-year-old child from Beijing had been infected by the virus, this is the first recorded case outside the Yangtze river delta region in eastern China where the new strain was first identified last month.

Investigations into the possible sources of infection and reservoirs of the virus are ongoing. Until the source of infection has been identified, it is expected that there will be further cases of human infection with the virus in China. Fortunately so far there has been no evidence of the flu being transmitted by human-to-human contact.

At present the WHO is not advising special screening at points of entry to the country or recommending that any travel or trade restrictions be applied. The WHO has also praised the response of Chinese authorities in stepping up disease surveillance and conducting retrospective testing of all people who had respiratory illnesses of unknown origin.

Another U.N. agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, is also working with Beijing to investigate the source of the virus, including poultry markets. “Poultry markets have been the focus of attention. This mission will be looking into this as a key target in its research,” Thomas said.

Sources: The WHO, Reuters

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