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New H7N7 bird flu strain discovered that could pose threat to humans
The News - Current Events
August 21, 2013
H7N7 human threat
A new strain of bird flu that can infect and kill animals has been found in chickens at live poultry markets in China. Scientists discovered the strain by accident while testing chickens, ducks, geese and other birds for the H7N9 virus that has infected more than 130 people and killed 40 since it was first detected in March.

The new strain, H7N7, poses a potential threat to people, according to lab tests which found that the virus caused severe pneumonia in ferrets, which are used as proxies for humans in flu research.

An international team led by Yi Guan, a flu specialist at the University of Hong Kong, took samples from chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, partridges and quail at markets in Shandong and Zhejiang provinces to the north and south of Shanghai, and further samples from markets in Guangdong. They found H7N9 in chickens in Rizhao, Shandong, and the new H7N7 in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.

The discovery that H7N9 still lurks in chickens at markets has raised fears that it could break out again in people and evolve into a more virulent form. Genetic tests suggest that the virus arrived in China with migratory water fowl from east Asia, jumped into domestic ducks, and then into chickens on at least two occasions.

Guan said Chinese authorities may have to close hundreds of live poultry markets for good to prevent lethal strains of bird flu spreading through the human population.

The March outbreak of H7N9 led health officials in China to close scores of live poultry markets in the Shanghai area, but many reopened within a month or two when cases of human infections began to fall. At the time, Keiji Fukuda, an assistant director general at the World Health Organisation, said it was unlikely the virus had "simply disappeared".

Guan's study confirms the virus is still circulating in birds, alongside related viruses that may also be a danger to people. "The virus is still at large. It's still in the birds," Guan said. "We shouldn't think that it will disappear naturally."

Most people who caught H7N9 visited live poultry markets before they fell ill. Markets in Shanghai sell about 175 million chickens a year, 120 million of which are bought live, according to the city's agricultural department.

Since they are the source of so many infections, Guan said, "the authorities should seriously reconsider having live poultry markets in big cities". Instead, the birds should be killed at a central slaughterhouse and sent on to market, to reduce human contact with the live animals.

The Chinese government is considering closing markets in Nanjing and Suzhou as part of a pilot project, and ultimately hopes to shift consumer tastes towards frozen chicken.

Writing in the journal Nature, Guan calls for long-term surveillance of viruses in birds, to give health authorities early warning of dangerous strains that emerge.

"The discovery of a novel H7N7 lineage that can infect ferrets reminds us that even if H7N9 does not return, there are risks lurking amongst the great diversity of avian influenza viruses," said Peter Horby at Oxford University's clinical research unit in Hanoi, Vietnam.

"The data do all point to live poultry markets being a major source of human infections with H7N9 virus," he added. "Moving live poultry markets out of urban areas may reduce the frequency of contact between infected birds or contaminated environments and humans, but there is a range of interventions that could reduce the risks of these markets being hubs for transmission and reservoirs of infection."

In the past, better cleaning procedures, bird-free "rest days", and segregation of animals at markets helped slow the spread of the H5N1 strain of bird flu.

 
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