H7N9 is an avian flu strain that first appeared in China in 2013. There have been 798 confirmed cases since then…not bad for three years but, and it’s a big but, The World Health Organisation is starting to record cases that have no evidence of handling infected poultry, the usual route of infection with H7N9. (source) A full 30% of those who become infected with H7N9 die which is testament to its virulence.
H5N1 also first appeared in China. This previously unknown flu virus was also linked directly to infected birds at poultry markets but since it was discovered has spread to 16 other countries, sickened over 800 people and killed more than 400 of those contracting it. (source)
The CDC reports that H5N1 has also shown human to human transmission, luckily neither of these viruses are very efficient at moving from human to human – yet.
Flu season in China is complicated, it’s a vast country with several distinct climates. CIDRAP reports as follows:
China has three regions with distinct influenza A seasons: the north with its winter peak, the south with its spring peak, and provinces at intermediate latitudes that have two peaks, one in January and February and one in the summer.
This most definitely isn’t good news. Both of these flu viruses are considered highly pathogenic and when you consider that the raison d’être for viruses is to reproduce the situation becomes far more serious. China has three flu seasons…that is times of the year when the regular circulating viruses infect millions more people than at other times of the year. Flu viruses are masters at re-inventing themselves. The regularly swap genetic information with other flu viruses, surface proteins are exchanged and it’s this constant recombination, mutation of the viruses that has made them so successful.
It’s completely possible for two different flu viruses to co-exist in one body. So, if a person is suffering from regular flu and is then exposed to a pathogenic form of flu such as H7N9 or H5N1 genetic recombination can occur. Get the right combination and you have a new variant of a pathogenic flu that will spread as fast as seasonal flu.
Scary or what?
Just to increase the fear factor a little in 2014 scientists recreated a new version of the 1918 pandemic flu that killed millions of people around the globe. We have no resistance to the created virus and some peers of Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka condemned his work.
“…other researchers have denounced the research as foolhardy and dangerous. Critics said that any benefits of the attempts to recreate 1918-like flu viruses from existing avian flu strains do not justify the catastrophic risks if such a genetically engineered virus were to escape either deliberately or accidentally from the laboratory and cause a deadly influenza pandemic”.
In his own defence Kawaoka said:
“Because avian influenza viruses in nature require only a few changes to adapt to humans and cause a pandemic, it is important to understand the mechanisms involved in adaptation and identify the key mutations so we can be better prepared,” Professor Kawaoka said. (source)
Note the first line of Kawaoka’s statement:
“Because avian influenza viruses in nature require only a few changes to adapt to humans and cause a pandemic…”
A few changes….It’s not a case of when a pathogenic flu virus combines with seasonal flu, it’s a case of when, as I said viruses have only one primary directive and that is to reproduce and to reproduce they need a suitable host that would facilitate rapid spread and therefore a continuation of the virus. We are that host.
The chances of either of these viruses getting into the wild bird population is substantial…and wild birds migrate enabling them to infect birds and poultry at home. We are then in the same situation as China – just waiting for human already infected with seasonal flu to contract a pathogenic strain.
There is nothing at all we can do about this except make sure that we are prepared for what is to come. Stock up on food and water so you can stay home during any outbreak. Stocking up on essentials such as disposable gloves and face masks is advisable. Stock up on bleach tablets so that you can wipe down door handles, letter boxes, mail boxes and anything else that has been touched by outsiders that may have come to your home. It’s all you can do because nature always finds a way.