Discovering the source of the H7N9 flu infection

By Liou Pei-pai 劉培柏  / 

Wed, May 01, 2013 - Page 8

The nation reported its first confirmed case of H7N9 avian influenza on Wednesday last week, when the Central Epidemic Command Center said a 53-year-old Taiwanese man who had been working in Suzhou in China’s Jiangsu Province had tested positive for the virus.

There are quite a few Taiwanese businesspeople in Suzhou, and the city has long been listed as an infected area by the Chinese government.

One would think that this would mean that there should have been more group infections among local residents, but to this day, only three individual H7N9 cases have been reported in the city.

One cannot help but wonder how these people became infected with the virus.

According to information about the outbreak released by the Chinese government, more than 100 people have been infected with the H7N9 avian flu virus, and more than 20 people have died.

In general, infected areas are limited to big cities in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Henan, Shandong and Jiangxi provinces, in addition to Beijing and Shanghai.

Chinese authorities said that between 40 and 50 percent of the people infected claim that they had not had contact with any poultry or birds at all.

WHO experts assisting China on the matter have not verified this.

A few days ago, a flu expert at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) commented that some of the infected might have unknowingly had contact with birds.

However, he added that the percentage of the infected who claimed to have had no contact with poultry was clearly too high.

In the past, almost all Asian-type H7 avian flu viruses were found in birds, but this time, researchers said the H7N9 strain appeared to have undergone some kind of mutation and had become infectious to humans.

The expert at the CDC therefore believes that there could be another source of infection other than birds, such as mammals.

Whether those mammals are cats, pigs or other animals is something that is still being investigated by experts.

Since both the Taiwanese and Chinese media have been reporting on the H7N9 outbreak almost every day, Taiwanese businesspeople working in China and their family members must surely be familiar with the necessary preventative measures and are paying close attention to personal hygiene.

Given the circumstances, how did the Taiwanese man still become infected with H7N9 in Suzhou?

No wonder some Taiwanese media outlets brandished this report under sensational headlines such as that H7N9 is now “attacking” or “invading” Taiwan.

The public is terrified of being infected by an unknown source.

Will our experts and academics be able to promptly solve this mystery?

Liou Pei-pai is a former director of the Taiwan Animal Health Research Institute.

Translated by Eddy Chang