Since the H7N9 avian influenza (AI) strain was detected in China in October 2016, 100 people have been killed up to the end of January, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China.
It is the “worst H7N9 bird flu season” since the virus first appeared in 2013, and while it may have passed its peak, the government said it could last until April.
The outbreak has sparked public concerns about potential viral mutations that could lead to person-to-person transmission of the disease, resulting in a H7N9 pandemic. The US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said no reports of human-to-human disease spread had been detected.
However, Shu Yuelong, head of the Chinese National Influenza Centre, said four family clusters had been with the virus and two had involved human-to-human transmission via close contact. Both cases involved one patient catching the virus because of contact with live poultry.
“These were highly individual, and all other patients were infected through contact with infected live poultry or wild birds,” Yuelong said.
The outbreak has seen Chinese chicken prices sink to their lowest level in more than a decade, according to Shanghai-based consultants JC Intelligence Co. In the past three months, several Chinese poultry regions along the south and eastern seaboard have closed live poultry markets in an effort to contain the virus.
World Health Organization responds
"China has built a strong surveillance system to identify and report new cases of emerging and infectious diseases like H7N9, as well as capacity to conduct laboratory analysis," said a spokesperson for the WHO. "They are notifying WHO of new cases in accordance with their responsibilities under the International Health Regulations. The Chinese authorities are monitoring the situation carefully, and have enacted measures including the closure of live bird markets and efforts to keep markets hygienic and safe."
Markets ordered to close
In the hardest-hit regions of China, such as Guangdong, Jiangsu and Anhui, almost half of the live poultry markets were found to have H7N9 contamination.
Ni Daxin, deputy director of emergency response for China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said weather conditions and “local habits of buying live or freshly slaughtered chickens” had contributed to the outbreak.
With markets closed, this has helped China control the outbreak, but Daxin said the short-termism approach will not solve the issue. “The ultimate way out [of the outbreak] is to upgrade the industry, shifting to large-scale poultry farming and slaughtering.”
China is the world’s second-largest poultry consumer and people buy chicken from live poultry markets.
Daxin has encouraged consumers to avoid fresh poultry and opt for frozen, suggesting “control of the epidemic will be much easier” this way.
With fewer cases of AI human infection reported this month, Daxin also said: “The peak of the epidemic seems to have passed, but smaller outbreaks may last into late April.”
China has rolled out a national real-time disease surveillance network with a joint taskforce including government departments for agriculture and commerce to monitor the disease.