New bird flu in China perhaps not contagious

The World Health Organization’s top representative in China said there are no signs that a new bird flu virus that has already left seven dead here is being transmitted between people and adds there is no reason for panic.

Most of the deaths and confirmed infections from a total of  24 confirmed cases of H7N9 in China have occurred in the country’s massive eastern city Shanghai. While most of the infections have been traced back to the handling of infected birds, one of the first reported cases is raising greater concern. Two sons of a man who died from H7N9 later developed respiratory illness.

One of the sons died, but Chinese authorities now say bird flu was not the cause of his death.

Michael O’Leary, the World Health representative in China, said while several members of the family fell ill, there is no evidence at this time that the disease can be passed from one human to another.

“So far, we really only have sporadic cases of a rare disease, and perhaps it will remain that way,” he said. “So this is not a time for over-reaction or panic or that sort of thing. These are a relatively small number of serious cases with personal health, medical implications but not at this stage known public health implications.”

O’Leary said there is still much to be learned about the virus and that because it is new, there is no way to predict the pattern it will follow.

“Now that the virus is identified, laboratories can now look for it specifically,” he added. “So we would expect that in neighboring countries as well and other places if there are serious unexplained cases of influenza, they would now begin to look for this virus and we would see. But we know so far still that is limited to only a small number of provinces even in China. We don’t know of other cases elsewhere.”

O’Leary was speaking at a news conference in Beijing Monday, along with the head of China’s national health and family planning commission. He praised China’s efforts to mobilize resources to monitor several hundred people who have come into contact with those who were infected.

Although some of the first deaths from the disease happened early last month, it took authorities in China three weeks to determine the new bird flu was the source of the illness. That has led some newspapers and Chinese Internet users to openly wonder about the cause for the delay and to express concerns about a cover-up. The Chinese government says the delay was the result of the time it took to understand the new virus.

In 2002, Chinese authorities initially tried to cover-up the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which emerged in China. The disease eventually spread across the globe leaving more than 800 people dead.

Concerns that Asia could see another epidemic similar to SARS weighed on markets across the region Monday, with most closing lower.

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