Chinese Bird Flu 2013: Is New Strain the Deadliest Ever?


A new strain of avian influenza, popularly known as "bird flu," has emerged in China, and it may be more deadly then the last version that worried public health officials. The World Health Organization said that the newest influenza strain is one of the most lethal strains that they have seen so far. The current outbreak has infected 108 people in China and killed 22 people.

As news of the disease spread, The Chinese government approached with uncharacteristic openness of information about the disease. The People’s Daily, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's newspaper, had a headline that said 'Publicize information to prevent 'bird flu panic'," insisting that governmental agencies be open and responsive with information about the bird flu outbreak. Although the current outbreak is worrying to health officials, the role of social media in the crisis is allowing the public and international health authorities to be more informed then in past crises.

"Bird flu" is a subtype of the influenza A virus that has adapted to birds. The previous outbreak of avian influenza was focused on the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, with the WHO estimating that 60% of cases resulted in death. The death toll from H5N1 is 371 people globally since 2003, according to the WHO.

The new avian influenza strain is termed H7N9 and is considered to be more easily transmissible from birds to humans then the H5N1. Neither has evolved to facilitate human-to-human transmission yet, a key step in becoming a global pandemic. Avian influenza has never grown to pandemic status like other types of influenza such as H1N1, the infamous Spanish flu that killed 3-5% of the world's population between 1918 and 1920.

The Chinese government has been very open about the outbreak compared to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, where coordinated international action was hampered by a Chinese government cover-up. This time around, international authorities have praised China for being more forthcoming with information about the current outbreak.

The rise of social media websites such as weibo and Renren have made the government have to respond in an age where censorship is much more difficult due to the sheer volume of information. A photo of a group of dead sparrows went viral on weibo, a microblogging website similar to Twitter:

Authorities promptly investigated the birds. They ruled out H7N9 as the cause of death.

Despite all the openness, there is still concern about the disease outbreak, which has not been contained yet. The new strain of the virus produces no visible illness in infected poultry, making it harder to track and control. Earlier this April in China, several cities closed down live poultry markets in order to limit the spread of the disease. On Wednesday, Taiwan confirmed that a traveller from China had come into the country with H7N9 and was in critical condition. The United States was reportedly attempting to produce a vaccine for the new avian influenza strain.

As health authorities race to come up with a plan to neutralize this outbreak of avian influenza before it becomes an epidemic, there are a few small comforts the population can take. The transparency of information due to government openness and wealth of information and accountability due to social media means that at least the public will have some idea of what is coming, instead of being blindsided by a sudden epidemic they had no time to prepare for.