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New deadly flu launched by live bird markets
August 21st, 2013
05:01 PM ET

New deadly flu launched by live bird markets

The new strain of bird flu that killed at least 40 people in China this year likely evolved through close contact between ducks and chickens in markets selling live birds, according to a genetic analysis published in the journal Nature. At least 130 people became infected during the outbreak, which began in March.

“We clearly identified that the source of human infection came from the infected chickens, not any other types of birds,” said Yi Guan, a professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong and one of the study authors. The analysis also shows the virus was shed from the birds' oral or upper respiratory tract, not from fecal material. According to Yi, this suggests that H7N9 reasonably well adapted to infect humans, a finding that's supported by other research.

The research group also discovered a previously unrecognized variety of bird flu – an H7N7 strain, with a genetic makeup similar to the novel H7N9 strain. The H7N7 strain was also able to infect mammals in laboratory conditions.

Any variety of influenza is broadly characterized by two of its proteins: the type of hemaglutinin (“H”) and the type of neuraminidase (“N”).

The highly technical analysis concluded that domestic ducks likely served as a melting pot, acquiring a variety of influenza viruses that typically circulate in wild birds. That stew resulted in a strain that shared genetic material with influenza viruses that were already established in the chicken population. The combination was made possible by ducks and chickens being in close contact in live poultry markets, or LPMs.

“This probably led to outbreaks in chickens, resulting in the rapid spread of the novel reassortant H7N9 lineage through LPMs, which then became the source of human infections,” the authors wrote. New infections came to a halt after LPMs in China were ordered shut on a temporary basis.

“At the moment we all have our fingers crossed and have intensive surveillance in place,” said Dr. William Schaffner, who chairs the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “Fortunately H7N9 has stopped (for now),” which Schaffner also attributes to the serious interventions at poultry markets in China.

While the markets played a crucial role in the emergence of the novel flu strain, Yi said it is possible to operate them more safely. He told CNN that chickens should be kept separate from ducks and other poultry, and that markets should be closed one or two days per month for thorough cleaning. Beyond that, Yi warns that regular testing is needed to spot potentially dangerous viruses before they start to spread.

“Most important is to conduct influenza surveillance. You need to know what kind of viruses are circulating in these birds at the markets.”


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