The avian influenza outbreak has claimed new victims right before a massive travel exodus begins in China for Chinese New Year. The National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) provided information that four new human cases have been infected by the H7N9 strain of avian influenza as of Friday.
The timing of the avian influenza outbreak is worrisome for health officials, as the new victims claimed are added to the current existing cases. The source of concern is the fact that it is right before the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations where a significant portion of China’s population will begin a massive travel exodus within the country. Most residents will be travelling, in particular, back to rural hometowns to celebrate the annual New Year festivities with their families.
The four latest cases come from Shanghai and Zhejiang, all involving men between the ages of 54 – 66. All are currently in hospitals undergoing treatment.
Currently, the number of victims claimed by the avian influenza outbreak total 195 cases from mainland China. The largest number of cases come from the province of Zhejiang, with 71 cases, followed by Shanghai, with 38 cases, and Jiangsu, with 30 cases. Other provinces with a smaller number of victims include Guangdong, Jiangxi, Anhui, Beijing, and Hebei.
One known case from Guangzhou involves a 5-year old girl, while other cases involve largely older people between the ages of 50 and up.
Contact with Poultry: Primary Route of Transmission
The primary route of transmission for the avian flu is through contact with poultry, which predominantly occurs in the rural villages and small towns in China. Travelling in highly dense populations, as will be the case leading up to Chinese New Year, also increases the chances of person-to-person transmission.
This particular strain of influenza began emerging last March, infecting over 100 people, out of which 26 passed away in May. The virus receded over the summer and re-emerged again in October.
Travelling for Chinese New Year
For the celebration of Chinese New Year, it is estimated that about 3.6 billion trips will be taken by air and ground transportation. Both airline and vehicle travel by car and train is expected to increase from last year’s numbers. Health officials are currently monitoring the situation closely for any signs of a larger-scale transmission of the virus between humans.
So far, Helen Yu, a spokeswoman for the Beijing office of the World Health Organization (WHO), has said that the number of infected cases without any contact with poultry have remained low. She indicated that the expectation is to continue to see just sporadic cases emerge.
Even so, the H7N9 influenza strain is of particular concern for its strong ability to grow in human lung tissue samples, according to Dr. Malik Peiris, an influenza specialist at the University of Hong Kong. As well, this strain contains a set of genetic mutations that have been linked to a greater capability allowing for human to human transmission.
Enhanced surveillance and health education continue
In the meantime, health education and enhanced disease surveillance are top priorities for the Chinese Department of Health, where continual cooperation with the WHO, and other relevant health authorities are of primary importance at the moment. Health education in the form of posters and pamphlets for travelers has been widely dispersed in travel hot-spots, along with the placement of thermal imaging systems to allow for body temperature checks for travelers.
In light of the cooperating health authorities and their watch for this particular strain of the avian influenza outbreak, there is hope that any new victims claimed before and during China’s massive travel exodus will be a miniscule number.
By Joscelyne Yu