China's new bird flu sickens 38, kills 10

Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY 4:39p.m. EDT April 11, 2013

Bird flu in China has killed 10 people. Even though it has not come to the USA, the CDC activated its emergency center to work on a test for the virus.

Chickens are seen at a farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, China.(Photo: Gillian Wong, AP)
Story Highlights

  • China reports 38 cases of its new flu strain, 10 deaths
  • CDC opened Emergency Operations Center because of threat
  • The disease doesn't seem to spread easily from person to person

After China reported 38 cases of a new, highly virulent flu strain that has killed 10 people, U.S. health agencies are moving into high gear to combat it.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated its Emergency Operations Center at Level II, the second-highest level of alert. CDC staffers working on the outbreak who aren't in laboratories moved to the operations center for efficiency.
"It's to ensure that we don't have any loose ends," CDC director Thomas Frieden said.
There have been no cases of the new flu reported outside China.
A vial of actual H7N9 flu virus from China arrived was delivered to a CDC laboratory Thursday afternoon. Up until now researchers had been using a model of the virus they built themselves from off-the-shelf DNA fragments available commercially, using the H7N9 genome information the Chinese posted online, Frieden said. Using the live virus a rapid test for H7N9 should be developed within a week, he said.
Three things make the strain less of a threat, he said.
"First, there's been no sustained person-to-person spread," he said. Almost all the cases have come from people exposed to infected poultry.
Asia's vast wild and captive flocks of birds are a known reservoir of various types of bird influenza. That puts people who come into contact with the birds at risk, but the larger danger for any flu strain comes if it can be passed easily between people, as the annual flu is each year. This strain doesn't seem to be able to do that. Because few people spend time around live chickens, it is unlikely to develop into a full-blown pandemic.
Second, Frieden said, is the excellent cooperation among health workers and governments worldwide to quickly share information and expertise. Finally, he said, since the H5N1 world flu pandemic of 2009, "we have a system in place that's more prepared than ever to respond to emergencies."
There are also three things that worry health officials. Right now H7N9 appears to be a very severe flu that kills at least 26% of those who get it. But the number of cases could be artificially low because Chinese health authorities are only testing people who are severely ill. They may be missing more mild cases, Frieden said.
Another problem is that this H7N9 virus doesn't appear to sicken birds that are infected with it, making it hard to spot. Finally, genetic analysis of the virus suggests it may be more able to adapt to humans and other mammals that a purely bird-based virus. That could make it more easily mutate to a person-to-person form.
U.S. officials are on high alert for possible cases coming into the country. So far three severely ill travelers from China have been stopped at the border because of concerns about infection, Frieden said. "Two of them ended up having influenza, but not, thankfully, this influenza."