Research into three bird flu victims in China has raised grim fears that the 11 deaths so far are just the tip of the iceberg.
Scientists found that the vicious new strain has the potential to pass more easily into humans and remain undetected until it is at an advanced stage.
The research into three people, all of whom died, showed the disease causes pneumonia, septic shock, brain damage and multi-organ failure.
It came as officials in a region of China culled chickens in a bid to stop the spread of a new strain of bird flu which claimed its tenth victim in the country yesterday.
City management officers in the Jiaxing area of Zhejiang province undertook a two day campaign which saw chickens captured and reared in residential areas were captured and killed to try and prevent the H7N9 virus from spreading.
The campaign came as a 74-year-old Shanghai man became the tenth person in the country to die from the mutated form of the virus.
Chinese researchers warned yesterday that the sudden emergence of this strain of flu ‘may pose a serious human health risk’ and said ‘appropriate counter measures were urgently required.’
Hong Kong authorities also announced plans to test all poultry brought in from the mainland.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that the cases of infection of the virus in China are the first in the world.
The source of the virus has not yet been identified and the WHO say that there is no evidence as yet of human to human transmission.
The organisation has called for good hygiene practices to be adhered to as a precaution.
To date, China has seen 38 confirmed cases of the disease including cases in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai.
Of those cases, 19 are said to be severe cases and nine are described as mild.
More than 750 close contacts of those affected are currently undergoing tests for the virus.
A group of scientists writing in the New England Journal of Medicine said the virus, which has been traced to a reassortment of genes from wild birds in east Asia and chickens in east China, ‘raises many urgent questions and global public health concerns’.
The reports chronicle the early days of an outbreak of a new influenza A virus, H7N9, never before been seen in humans.
It has infected at least 40 people in four Chinese provinces and killed 11 in the past two months, Chinese authorities said.
Scientists studied three patients included two men, ages 87 and 27, both from Shanghai, and a 35-year-old woman from Anhui.
Dr. Timothy Uyeki and Dr. Nancy Cox, both of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote: ‘It is possible that these severely ill patients represent the tip of the iceberg.’
They said it is particularly concerning because the virus has genetic characteristics that suggest that it might be better adapted than other bird flu strains to infect mammals — including humans — and people have no resistance to it.
Because the virus doesn’t make birds sick, so it may spread widely and remain undetected until people become ill.
A health worker sprays disinfectant at bird area of Shanghai Zoo
The latest victim was one of three new infection cases diagnosed in Shanghai according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.
The other two new cases – an 83-year-old woman and a 68-year-old man – are said to be in a stable condition in hospital.
Chinese authorities have been attempting to prevent the spread of the disease since it emerged in February.
Hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled at bird farms and poultry markets across Shanghai and the Jiangsu province.
Sales of racing pigeons – a popular pastime in China – have also been banned. Almost two million carrier pigeons have also been grounded.
The outbreak of the H7N9 virus has already affected business in China.
Just yesterday, the owner of the Chinese arm of the fast food chain KFC reported that its profits had been hit by the virus.
US scientists meanwhile have made a start on creating a vaccine for the new strain despite a sample from China only arriving yesterday.
Government-backed researchers begun testing a ‘seed’ strain of the virus using a genetic code posted online.
The new faster approach – born in the aftermath of the swine flu outbreak in 2009 – has seen weeks shaved off the vaccine making process.
But it could still take five to six months before one is available.
Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or BARDA, said: ‘We’ll take it, if the virus turns out to be a tough one, that head start could be very important.’
As a test drive for the new flu technology, in 2011 the government gave its partners the genetic sequence for a North American strain of H7N9, a similar virus to the one making people sick in China.
In less than two weeks, scientists were ready to make virus seed.
The next year, they sequenced an H5N1 virus and produced a synthetic virus in six days.
Then came a live test. The United States asked its partners to make a real vaccine for a variant of swine flu known as H3N2 that had been infecting children in the U.S. Midwest last year.
Once again, they produced virus seed in less than a week.
So, when Chinese health authorities released the genetic sequence for the H7N9 bird flu on March 30, U.S. health officials decided to try the new technique.
Novartis and Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics Vaccines Inc, went to work and by April 4, they had synthetic DNA ready and had started to grow the virus in cells, long before samples of the actual virus arrived from China yesterday.
PETA has called for British authorities to ban cross-Channel pigeon racing because of the new strain of bird flu.
The animal rights group has been monitoring the outbreak in China and has warned that an epidemic could spread to Britain.
They are concerned pigeons released from France and Spain may have been exposed to diseases if they land on foreign farms, drank contaminated water or have come into contact with other infected birds.
Associate Director Mimi Bekhechi, of PETA UK, said: ‘Aside from risking the pigeons’ lives pigeon fanciers may be putting human health at risk by taking British pigeons across the Channel.’
‘We hope the government will take action now rather than wait and see if people get sick.’
The release of pigeons from international locations is subject to compliance with import rules set out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
However, PETA claim a recent undercover investigation has revealed widespread non-compliance with these requirements.
A spokesperson said: ‘Thousands of pigeons are crammed into filthy, congested cages and transported to and from continental Europe for up to seven days.
‘They are then released to return to Britain without the required checks and certification, in apparent violation of UK law.’
Bird flu is caused by a flu virus that is closely related to human flu viruses. It is spread through bird droppings, water, feed and equipment.
As of January 2012 the WHO has confirmed there have been 583 cases of H5N1 in humans leading to 344 deaths.
These have occurred in Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.
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