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Asia braces for spill-over of new bird flu strain

Most vendors of live and slaughtered chicken in Indonesia express little concern about avian flu and the potential for humans to contract it Brennon Jones/IRIN
Officials throughout Asia are implementing measures to protect people from a new strain of bird flu - H7N9 - that has so far infected 24 people in China, killing seven.

These are the first human infections and deaths to have been recorded from this virus strain worldwide. China’s neighbours have reacted by boosting hospital capabilities and disease surveillance, strengthening border control, issuing reminders to ban illegal poultry imports, and more vigorously testing what is imported.

Following a mass poultry culling on 5 April in Shanghai - one of the Chinese cities affected - pandemic expert and virologist Yi Guan from the University of Hong Kong told IRIN he expects human cases to “drop or stop”. But he added that experts still have much to learn about the disease.

The virus has proved to be a “low-pathogenic” virus in infected land-based birds, so it is not clear why the virus has been so severe in humans, he noted. The true spread of the disease is also still unknown.

"We have a knowledge gap and do not know the full picture. There may be people with minor infections or who are asymptomatic among [the] population as a result of H7N9," said Yi.

Experts have not been able to learn how or why the 21 persons became infected. While some people had contact with animals or their habitats, and infections are suspected to originate in poultry, the virus's host and source have not been lab-confirmed.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has noted that knowing what species is responsible for the fatal outbreak is “essential to target response actions accordingly, including trade restrictions”.


Since the H5N1 bird flu virus first appeared in 2003, there have been 622 laboratory-confirmed human cases globally, 371 of them fatal, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Indonesia has seen the largest number of deaths from H5N1: 160.

"We face a similar situation to China because the high risks of the animal-human interface, and inadequate bio-security among many poultry farmers. That's why [holding a] public awareness campaign is important, and we continue to closely monitor genetic mutations of the bird flu virus,” said Emil Agustiono, the head of Indonesia’s National Zoonosis Committee.

He said no “special measures” have been enacted as the country does not import live poultry from China.

The WHO has not advised any travel restrictions or any special screenings linked to the flu outbreak.

Tjandra Yoga Aditama, director general for disease control and environmental health at Indonesia’s Health Ministry, told IRIN the call for “intensive surveillance” has been made to local health departments. They have also been called upon to immediately respond to “any cases of influenza-like illness and severe acute respiratory infection, which may be found in communities, hospitals and other health care providers, seaports and airports."


Vietnam, which does import live poultry from China, issued a government directive on 4 April reminding officials working near the border with China to be vigilant about keeping out illegal poultry imports and about inspecting all legal imports before distribution.

Vietnam’s health ministry has designated laboratories to analyse blood samples of suspected cases.

The Institute for Tropical Diseases in the capital, Hanoi, has ready 8,000 doses of Tamiflu (reported by Chinese authorities to be effective in treating the infection at early stages), 23 respirators and two dialysis machines. On 5 April, the Health Ministry promulgated an action plan in the case of an H7N9 outbreak.


Local media reported that Hong Kong government officials have cautioned against panic-buying and confirmed the availability of 1,400 hospital beds to quarantine any patients infected with H7N9.

Following his visit to a local poultry market on 8 April, Hong Kong’s secretary for food and health, Ko Wing-man, told reporters that officials in Hong Kong and mainland China are collaborating to boost surveillance of all poultry imports. All poultry are to receive rapid tests for H5N1 virus as well as H7N9 before being released to the markets for sales in Hong Kong.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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