A new, deadly variant of bird flu with a 50% fatality rate has been described as as a “serious threat” by China’s Centre for Disease Control.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says a recent spike in the number of human cases of H5N6 bird flu in China is cause for concern and requires “increased surveillance”.
While only 48 people have been infected with H5N6 bird flu since the first reported case in 2014, a third of those confirmed cases were identified in China’s Guangxi province during the past 3 months alone.
While infection numbers so far are low, the severity of the disease is a significant worry. Half of the people who are confirmed to have caught the virus have died, and the remainder have all suffered serious illness.
A WHO spokesman said: “Wider geographical surveillance in the China affected areas and nearby areas is urgently required to better understand the risk and the recent increase of spillover to humans.”
As yet, H5N6 is thought to only infect people who have direct contact with live poultry although one 61-year-old woman who tested positive for the virus in July says she can’t work out how she caught it.
The WHO spokesperson told BNO News that human-to-human transmission of the virus is unlikely: “Currently available epidemiologic and virologic evidence suggest that A(H5N6) influenza viruses have not acquired the ability of sustained transmission among humans, thus the likelihood of human-to-human spread is low”.
However, viruses are nothing if not adaptable. A report from China’s Centre for Disease Control that described the spread of H5N6 as a “serious threat” to the poultry industry and human health noted several mutations in samples taken from two patients.
“The increasing trend of human infection with avian influenza virus has become an important public health issue that cannot be ignored,” the researchers said.
Researchers from the European Centre for Disease Control said there were signs that H5N6 was adapting to infect mammals: “The additional reports of transmission events to mammals, e.g. seals and a fox as well as seroepidemiological evidence of transmission to wild boar, could indicate evolutionary processes,” they said, “including mammal adaptation with the possibility to acquire the ability to transmit to humans”.
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