Bird Flu Flying Back
The H7N9 bird flu has been known and studied for some time, but that doesn’t mean scientists have found a foolproof way to contain the disease if it becomes more transmissible. And with this week’s announcement of 14 new cases out of mainland China, global concern is on the rise.
The principal fear is that the imminent Chinese New Year will hasten the spread of H7N9 as billions of people travel to and from China’s rural provinces, possibly sharing close spaces with infected poultry:
The official travel season in China began Thursday, with the government estimating that 3.62 billion trips would be taken in the next 40 days by road, train, airplane and other modes of transportation.
Still, there is reason to be optimistic that H7N9 hasn’t yet evolved to spread easily among people. Researchers tend to look closely for two signs of easy transmission:
One sign would be a spate of cases among people who have had no apparent contact with poultry or environments contaminated by the feces, uncooked blood or other fluids of poultry. The other would be a series of cases in which several members of the same family fall ill in quick succession and appear to have transmitted the disease to one another.
Neither of these scenarios has yet appeared. But the flu is a crafty organism, and this travel season could offer precisely the reservoir of bodies it needs to take that final leap. Bottom line: watch the news and wash your hands often, people. This too shall pass.