China has reported two deaths from avian flu after confirming five new cases of H5N6, with the World Health Organization calling for ‘urgent’ action.
Experts have raised concerns about the growing number of bird flu cases among people in China, and have warned that the strain may be more contagious to humans.
Five people – four men and one woman – in Sichuan Province, Zhejiang Province and Guangxi Autonomous Region were infected with the bird flu strain in 2021, reports The Sun, quoted by the Hong Kong Department of Health.
Two of those people are now dead, with the other three currently fighting for their lives in the hospital, officials said in a statement.
Four out of five infected people were exposed to live household plumage, the statement said. It is being investigated how the fifth was exposed.
China has reported two deaths from avian flu after confirming five new cases of H5N6, with the World Health Organization calling for ‘urgent’ action. Image: Chickens cages in China (file photo)
The first person to die of H5N6 in December was a 75-year-old man from Luzhou, Sichuan. He was infected on December 1, taken to the hospital on December 4 and died on December 12.
The second victim was a 54-year-old man from Leshan, Sichuan, who became infected on December 8, admitted on December 16 and died on December 24.
A 51-year-old woman from Hangzhou, Zhejiang fell ill on December 15 and was taken to hospital three days later. In the statement, her condition was described as critical.
Two other men from Liuzhou, Guangxi – a 53-year-old and a 28-year-old – were also infected and taken to hospital on December 23. also critical.
“While local oversight, prevention and control measures are in place, the CHP will remain vigilant and work closely with the World Health Organization and relevant health authorities to monitor the latest developments,” the statement said.
A total of 63 human cases of avian influenza A (H5N6) have been reported in China since 2014. More than half of those were reported in the last six months.
Although the numbers are much lower than the hundreds infected with H7N9 in 2017, the infections are serious, making many critically ill.
Most cases had come into contact with plumage, and there are no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission, the WHO said in October.
It said further research was ‘urgently needed’ to understand the risk and the increase of spillage over to humans.
‘The increase in human cases in China this year is worrying. It is a virus that causes high mortality, ‘said Thijs Kuiken, professor of comparative pathology at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, last year.
Image: Workers vaccinate chicks (stock photo). China vaccinates poultry against avian flu, but the vaccine used last year can only partially protect against emerging viruses, preventing major outbreaks, but allowing the virus to circulate
‘It could be that this variant is a bit more contagious (to humans) … or there may be more of this virus in plumage at the moment and therefore more people are being infected.’
China is the largest poultry producer in the world and top producer of ducks, which act as a reservoir for influenza viruses.
Background farms in China are common and many people still prefer to buy live chickens at markets.
China vaccinates poultry against avian flu, but the vaccine used last year can only partially protect against emerging viruses, preventing major outbreaks but allowing the virus to circulate.
There have been less than 1,000 cases worldwide since the virus originated in the late 1990s. Human-to-human transmission is even rarer.
But because of how viruses evolve, experts are concerned that a bird flu strain could mutate into one that could easily spread between humans and cause a pandemic.
In November, health authorities in the United Kingdom issued a warning to people traveling to China about the risks of bird flu.
A virus that kills up to 50% of people … but transmission is rare: everything you need to know about bird flu
What is bird flu?
Bird flu, or avian flu, is a contagious type of flu that is widespread among bird species but can, on rare occasions, spread to humans.
Like human flu, there are many strains of bird flu:
The current outbreak in birds in the United Kingdom is H5N1, the strain that infects Britons.
Where has it been seen in the UK?
A human case of bird flu has been reported in the south-west of England.
Officials have not disclosed the exact location of the case, but UKHSA said all close personal contacts of the individual have been traced and that there is ‘no evidence’ of the infection being spread to anyone else.
The UK is facing a particularly bad year for cases in birds, with around one million to be shot dead in Lincolnshire – where the virus was first detected on 11 December.
Outlets were located around Mablethorpe, Alford and South Elkington in the region.
There have also been outbreaks in North Yorkshire and Pocklington in East Yorkshire.
How deadly is the virus?
Mortality rates for bird flu in humans are estimated at as high as 50 percent.
But because transmission to humans is so rare, fewer than 500 deaths from bird flu have been reported to the World Health Organization since 1997.
Paul Wigley, Professor of Avian Infection and Immunity at the University of Liverpool, said: ‘The advice given by APHA and UKHSA on contact with infected birds is prudent and should be followed.
“The risk of wider contamination to the general public remains low.”
Is it transmissible from birds to humans?
Cases of bird-to-human transmission are rare and usually not spread across human-to-human.
Bird flu is spread through close contact with an infected bird or one’s body.
This may include:
- touching infected birds
- touching drips or bedding
- killing or preparing contaminated plums for cooking
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said: ‘Transmission of avian influenza to humans is rare because it requires direct contact between an infected, usually dead, bird and the individual concerned.
‘It’s a risk for the traders who are accused of removing carcasses after an outbreak, but the virus is not spreading in general and is a bit of a threat.
‘It does not behave like the seasonal flu to which we are accustomed.
‘Despite the current heightened concerns about viruses, there is no risk to chicken or eggs and no need for public alarm.’
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of bird flu usually take three to five days to appear with the most common being:
- a very high temperature
- or feeling hot or shivery
- painful muscles
- a cough or shortness of breath