The deadly avian influenza (bird flu) virus appears to be spreading between people. Researchers believe that a woman in China caught the flu, or H7N9 virus, from her father and not from poultry. Both the woman and her father died from the disease.
This is apparently the first time that scientists have been able to confirm that this particular strain of bird flu can spread between human beings, according to the British Medical Journal. Around 43 people have died from H7N9 since it was first detected last year, with more than 130 becoming sick. Those people were all believed to have had contact with live poultry from which they caught the virus.
The woman, just 32 years old and reported to be healthy, had no contact with poultry. Instead, her only known exposure to the disease was visiting her mortally ill father in the hospital. The father made regular visits to a live poultry market.
The daughter got sick and had to be admitted to the hospital, where she died on April 24. Subsequent genetic testing proved that the woman did indeed have the H7N9 virus. Researchers tested 43 other people who had contact with the father and daughter. None tested positive for the bird flu, the Journal said.
Spreading between Human Beings
This case seems to show that the H7N9 virus can spread from person to person, which is how the worst pandemic diseases spread, the Journal said. Although the disease does not appear to be that contagious yet, it is entirely possible it could become that.
It is also possible that there have been other cases where the H7N9 virus passed between people that have yet been detected. Scientists are using this incident to push efforts to develop vaccines and drugs to treat the disease.
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So far no cases of H7N9 have been reported outside of China, but if it can spread between people, it can spread to other countries. Such diseases can spread quickly in today’s world of international air travel. Jet airliners, which are cramped and filled with people, are the perfect environment for human-to-human transmission of influenza.
There is no known vaccine for H7N9, and doctors have had limited success treating it. Part of the reason why this influenza is so scary is that it infects and quickly kills younger and healthier people. This particular strain was first detected earlier this year, and Chinese poultry markets were shut down to slow its spread.
Scientists Building a Better, More Potent H7N9 Virus
In a scary twist, a group of scientists have announced plans to use genetic engineering to create a more virulent strain of H7N9 that can infect humans. The scientists plan to do nature’s deadly work for it by making a virus that will have an easier time spreading between humans. The idea behind these plans is to develop such a strain so that doctors can develop vaccines and drugs to stop it.
There are at last three major dangers from this kind of research, critics say. The first is that terrorists or a madman could steal the genetically engineered super virus and release it. After all, why should Al Qaeda invest its resources in mad scientists and secret laboratories when supposedly legitimate researchers are doing the work?
The second danger is that the disease could be accidently released, with someone accidently exposed and spreading the disease between people. It also could be released by a natural disaster such as an earthquake.
The third danger is that the details of the scientific research used to create the super virus will fall into the hands of terrorists, a ruthless government such as that in North Korea, or an individual madman. In today’s world, it might be possible for a lone wolf maniac to replicate the scientists’ work in the garage and start spreading the disease.
Some believe the research violates the Biological Weapons Convention — the international treaty that bans germ warfare and biological weapons. This treaty was created for a very good reason: to stop the development of dangerous biological weapons.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Family
The main thing that you can do to protect your family is to be vigilant. Currently this virus is only in China and Taiwan, and there is no evidence that it has spread to the United States.
Watch news reports carefully and take additional precautions if you learn it is here in the U.S. These precautions include such common measures as avoiding contact with live poultry and sick people. If the disease is reported in your area, try to stay out of crowded public places and avoid closed-in environments such as classrooms or public transit. Avoiding hospitals and medical clinics is also a really good idea. Remember: The woman in China caught the virus from her father in the hospital.