This year’s global spread of multiple strains of the Avian Flu has health officials throughout the world on high alert.
Multiple viral strains have been reported in poultry farms and wild flocks throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia in the past three months, prompting health officials to expand their preparedness and tracking efforts as the unprecedented levels raise the risk of a potential human outbreak.
After a recent spike in deaths from bird flu among patients in China, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned all countries to watch for outbreaks in poultry flocks and to report any human cases promptly. Earlier in the week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new travel warning about bird flu in China.
The CDC is warning that the H7N9 strain of bird flu appears to be unusually active again, and is advising anyone traveling to China to stay away from chickens and poultry markets. At least 225 cases have been reported since September, reports the New York Times, which notes that the upcoming Chinese New Year could help spread the virus because of the massive movements of people—and live poultry—throughout China.
“The rapidly expanding geographical distribution of these outbreaks and the number of virus strains currently co-circulating have put WHO on high alert, “Director-General Margaret Chan told the U.N. agency’s executive board this week, per Reuters. She said the world is better prepared for a bird flu pandemic than it was during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 and 2010, “but not at all well enough.”
Chan said that more than 1,000 cases of bird flu in humans had been reported in China over the last four years, including 39 fatalities.
Worries over a Global Pandemic Increase among Health Officials
The Organization for Animal Health (OIE) says the concurrent outbreaks in birds in recent months are “a global public health concern.”
Global health officials are sounding the alarm bells as they warn one of the current strains could make a jump into humans as H5N1 did in the late 1990s. Normally, there are two or three Avian Viral strains recorded in birds at any one time; this year, at least six different avian strains have been identified, including H5N1, H5N2, H5N8, and H7N8.
Health officials are unsure of why so many strains are circulating at one time, and are concerned that almost 40 countries have reported new outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry or wild birds since November.
In birds, the latest data from the OIE shows that outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian flu have been detected in Britain, Italy, Kuwait and Bangladesh in the last few days alone.
The United States has, so far this year, not been hit as hard by the bird flu. But earlier this month, the AP reported that 386 cats that live in New York City shelters were quarantined after testing positive for a strain of bird flu. In December, New York City health officials said a local veterinarian appeared to have been infected with the H7N2 strain of the avian flu after interacting with infected cats.
According to the NYC Department of Health, this is the first reported case of a human contracting H7N2 due to exposure from an infected cat.
“Every time a virus adapts in a new animal, like a bird to a cat, we get concerned about the health of the cats and the humans who care for those cats,” Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the NYC Department of Health, told NPR. According to that same NPR article, This is not only the first time we’ve seen the H7N2 Flu strain jump from cat to human; it’s also the first time we’ve seen it jump from bird to cat.
Early symptoms of the Avian Flu are very similar to seasonal flu, but some strains such as H7N9 can cause severe respiratory illness and, in about one-third cases, death.