Beijing confirmed for the first time that the H7N9 bird flu has spread from person to person, but for now there appears to be no threat of a major epidemic.
Limited human-to-human infection of avian influenza of the H7N9 strain occurred in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said Jan. 27.
The government of China had previously stated in its treatment guidelines for the H7N9 virus that it did not rule out the possibility of interhuman transmission under the proviso that such infection would be limited, and less than consistent in extent, even if it was taking place.
Human-to-human transmission through close contact does not immediately induce a major epidemic as long as it occurs only sporadically. But viral mutations that facilitate interhuman infection could prompt a global pandemic.
"We must remain vigilant for such a scenario," said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University.
Already this year, 111 infection cases have been confirmed in China, including Hong Kong, with 22 fatalities.
The government of Zhejiang province disclosed Jan. 27 that 12 deaths have already occurred this year, a sharp rise from the single fatality in a previous report. That indicates other Chinese provinces may have seen more deaths than the currently available numbers show.
A total of 260 people in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been infected, resulting in 71 fatalities, since the first cases of human H7N9 infection were reported in late March 2013.
Chen Hualan, director of the Animal Influenza Laboratory of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, told an international conference in Sendai that she believed the infection source was a free-range chicken breed called "yellow meat," which is known for high meat quality. No viruses have been found in broilers sampled at chicken farms and elsewhere, while experiments have found ducks were not easily infected, Chen added.
Chinese authorities have banned live poultry trading in different parts of the country ahead of the Jan. 31 Spring Festival, or the Lunar New Year, when such practices usually thrive.
"The spread of infection hinges on what measures will be taken by authorities, such as bans on live poultry trading," said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virology professor with the University of Tokyo's Institute of Medical Science.
(This article was written by Kim Soon-hi in Shanghai and Yuri Oiwa in Tokyo.)
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