UN Warns of Bird Flu Increase in China

January 21, 2014 Updated: January 22, 2014

There has been a resurgence in China of cases of bird flu, which is often lethal in humans. On Jan. 20, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) warned countries neighboring China to “remain vigilant.”

As people travel to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, there is “opportunity for further spread and human exposure” of the virus, FAO states in a release.

“The number of human infections with H7N9 has increased considerably since late December in East and Southeast China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO),” it states.

In China, 16 new cases of bird flu have been reported since Jan. 17, according to the WHO. The recent cases are in Shanghai City, Zhejiang Province, Fujian Province, and Guangdong Province, which are on China’s coast in a band running from Shanghai in the north to Guangdong in the south.

Deaths were reported on Jan. 10 in Fujian Province, on Jan. 13 in southwestern Guizhou Province, and two deaths were reported, one of them a medical doctor, on Jan. 20 in Shanghai.

Potential Pandemic

Two strains of avian influenza are spreading, H7N9 and H5N1. They are often simply referred to as “avian flu” or “bird flu.”

There is a constant flow of new bird flu cases. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) said there have been more than 600 cases of H5N1 in humans since November 2003, and about 60 percent of the victims died.

As for H7N9, which emerged March 31, 2013, the CDC said in the spring of 2013 there were 132 cases and 44 deaths.

The CDC warns, “Most concerning about this situation is the pandemic potential of this virus. Influenza viruses constantly change and it’s possible that this virus could gain the ability to spread easily and sustainably among people, triggering a global outbreak of disease (pandemic).”

Bird flu typically infects people who come in direct contact with infected birds, often chickens. In nearly all cases, the victims contracted the virus in China.

The virus may already be mutating, however. Chinese researchers in Shanghai found H7N9 is capable of spreading from human to human. The finding was reported Jan. 11 by Taiwan’s ROC Central News Agency.

Spreading Abroad

Among the key concerns is that bird flu could spread to other countries. 

On Jan. 21, however, a second victim died from the virus in Vietnam. The previous victim in Vietnam, a 4-year-old child, died in April.

The latest victim in Vietnam was a 52-year-old man in Ho Chi Minh City. He was hospitalized Jan. 11 with a high fever and died a week later. According to VOA News, he contracted the virus from a duck that came into contact with chickens at a market.

The first confirmed case of bird flu in the Americas also took place this month. The victim was a resident of Alberta, Canada, whose identity was not released, according to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. The victim contracted the virus during a trip to Beijing, and was admitted to a hospital on Jan. 1 after returning home on a Dec. 27 flight. The victim did not cough, as sometimes happens with H5N1, and died from swelling of the brain.

Meanwhile, the new warnings about bird flu come on the heels of the USDA in August approving China to process and cook chickens for sale in U.S. markets. The USDA is also currently auditing China’s chicken slaughter system, and may approve China to sell its own chickens to the United States.

On Jan. 10, the Philippines banned the importation of chicken from China, out of concern for the spread of bird flu. 

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