H7N9, a lesser-known bird flu virus that was recently discovered in China, is being blamed for the deaths of at least two men in Shanghai and making a woman in the eastern city of Chuzhou seriously ill.
China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission has yet to establish the source of the virus or how the three patients became infected. This is the first time this strand of bird flu has been detected in humans.
More than 85 individuals in close contact with the three victims were interviewed by the Chinese health commission and found to have not been infected by the virus, reported the Associated Press.
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According to the Chinese agency, the virus is not easily spread from person to person.
Chinese authorities have not disclosed the victim’s occupations.
"We don’t know yet the causes of illness in the two sons, but naturally, if three people in one family acquire severe pneumonia in a short period of time, it raises a lot of concern," the World Health Organization’s China representative, Michael O’Leary, said at a briefing in Beijing late Monday.
"Obviously we’re very concerned about the evidence that humans have not only become infected with H7N9, but also have died as a result of it," O’Leary said. "So we’re taking it seriously."
One of the male victims of H7N9 was 87 and became ill on Feb. 19, dying just eight days later, the AP reported. The second man, 27, reportedly became ill Feb. 27 and died on March 4, said the Chinese health commission.
The 35-year-old woman in the Anhui city of Chuzhou became ill on March 9. Her current condition was not reported.
The victims showed symptoms of fever and coughing and later developed severe pneumonia and breathing difficulties, the South China Morning Post reported.
Experts say the deaths in China might indicate that the H7N9 strain has morphed to become more lethal to humans, although it’s not possible to make any conclusions yet about its mortality rate because many mild cases may go undetected.
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"I would guess that given the severity of the human disease it is likely that these particular viruses have undergone the change to become highly pathogenic but obviously that remains to be ascertained," Hong Kong microbiologist Malik Peiris told the AP. "The crucial question is the source of this virus, where is it."
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