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First it was swine flu and now it's bird flu. And it can be deadly. Officials are calling the new strain of bird flu, H7N9, one of the “most lethal” flu viruses ever seen. So far, 110 human cases have been reported in China, including one in Taiwan, and 23 people have died. Chinese scientists reported earlier this week that they believe the recent outbreak of H7N9 in people began in a live poultry market. While there are currently no reported cases of bird flu (human or bird) in U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a health alert for people traveling to and from China.
What is bird flu? Bird flu, or avian influenza, is a virus usually found in birds, but it can be transmitted to humans by an infected bird. But unlike human flu strains, bird flu doesn't spread easily from person to person, though in extremely rare cases it can happen. Because flu viruses are constantly evolving, public health officials are keeping a close eye on the current outbreak of H7N9 to make sure person-to-person infections do not become common.
What are the concerns about the H7N9 strain? What worries health experts about H7N9 is that this virus jumps from birds to people much easier than the previous H5N1 strain that appeared in 2003 and killed 360 people. Further complicating matters is the fact that birds infected with H7N9 don’t appear sick, which makes the virus especially tough to track.
How do people catch bird flu? People generally catch bird flu by coming into close contact with infected birds (alive or dead), or their droppings, and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. You cannot get sick from eating fully cooked eggs and poultry (all parts of the meat should reach at least 158 degrees). The CDC also reports that the disease could become airborne and inhaled when a bird in close proximity flaps its wings. In addition, it’s possible that the disease may be migrating into other animals. To be safe, always wash your hands after handling raw meat or coming into contact with any livestock.
What are the symptoms? According to the CDC, symptoms of H7N9 bird flu begin with a high fever and cough, and some infected patients have reported sweating and extreme fatigue. If you experience these or any flu symptoms, see your doctor immediately -- the illness can progress into severe pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), septic shock and multi-organ failure leading to death.
There are currently no flu vaccinations for this strain of bird flu, but they are in development, should they be needed. In the meantime, the best way to avoid all flu strains is to be vigilant about washing your hands thoroughly, especially if you tend to touch your face a lot.