(ORDO NEWS) — China has reported two deaths from bird flu after confirming five new cases of the H5N6 virus, and the World Health Organization has called for “urgent” action.
Experts are concerned about the rise in human cases of bird flu in China and warn that the strain may be more contagious to humans.
Five people – four men and one woman – in Sichuan Province, Zhejiang Province and Guangxi Autonomous Region were infected with the bird flu strain in 2021, The Sun reports, citing Hong Kong’s health department.
Two of those people have already died, while three others are currently in hospital and fighting for their lives, officials said in a statement.
Four of the five infected were exposed to live poultry, the statement said. How the fifth got infected is now being clarified.
The first person to die from H5N6 in December was a 75-year-old man from Luzhou, Sichuan. He contracted the disease on December 1, was taken to the hospital on December 4, and died on December 12.
The second victim was a 54-year-old man from Leshan, Sichuan, who was infected on December 8, admitted to hospital on December 16, and died on December 24.
A 51-year-old woman from Hangzhou, Zhejiang fell ill on December 15 and was taken to the hospital three days later. Her condition was listed as critical in the statement.
Two other men from Liuzhou, Guangxi – a 53-year-old and a 28-year-old – also became infected and were taken to hospital on December 23. The older man’s condition is listed as serious, while the younger one’s condition is also critical.
While surveillance, prevention and control activities are underway on the ground, KHP will remain vigilant and work closely with the World Health Organization and relevant health authorities to monitor the latest developments,” the statement said.
Since 2014, a total of 63 human cases of avian influenza A (H5N6) have been reported in China. More than half of them were registered in the last six months.
Although these numbers are far less than the hundreds of H7N9 infections in 2017, the infections are serious, many of them seriously ill.
Most of the cases came into contact with poultry, and there are no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission of the virus, the WHO said in October.
She said further investigation is “urgent” to understand the risk and the likelihood of the infection spreading to humans.
An increase in the number of human cases in China this year is a concern. It is a virus that causes high mortality,” Thijs Kuiken, professor of comparative pathology at the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, said last year.
Maybe this variant is a little more contagious (to humans)…or there is more of this virus in the bird at the moment and therefore more people are getting infected.”
China is the world’s largest producer of poultry and the main producer of ducks, which act as a reservoir for influenza viruses.
Backyard farming is widespread in China, and many people still prefer to buy live chickens from the markets.
China is vaccinating poultry against bird flu, but the vaccine used last year may only partially protect against new viruses, preventing major outbreaks but allowing the virus to continue to circulate.
Since the emergence of the virus in the late 1990s, fewer than 1,000 cases have been reported worldwide. Person-to-person transmission of the virus is even rarer.
But because of the way viruses evolve, experts fear that a strain of bird flu could mutate into one that could easily spread between people and cause a pandemic.
In November, UK health authorities issued a warning to people traveling to China about the danger posed by bird flu.
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