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Emergence of H7N9 Avian Flu Hints at Broader Threat

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our CAFO's vs. Free Trade page.

The H7N9 influenza virus did not emerge alone. Researchers have traced the evolution of the deadly avian flu currently spreading in China, and have found evidence that it developed in parallel with a similar bird flu, H7N7, which can infect mammals.

Although there is no evidence that this H7N7 strain will infect humans, the authors of a study published today in Nature say that their finding reinforces the idea that H7 avian viruses are constantly mixing and exchanging genetic material - a process known as reassortment - in Asian poultry markets. This raises the threat that H7N7 will reassort and become able to spread to humans.

"H7 is out there in China and not just in the form of this H7N9," says Richard Webby, a co-author of the study and an influenza specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Ducks, in particular, act as living mixing bowls for avian viruses. Domestic species encounter a large catalog of wild-bird viruses, which swap genes to form versions that can spread to chickens and to humans.

Better surveillance of Chinese bird populations is needed to monitor the emergence of dangerous viruses such as H7N9, says lead author Yi Guan, an influenza specialist at the University of Hong Kong. In China, the virus has infected 135 people and resulted in 44 deaths since February. "This is a very different influenza ecosystem from other countries," says Guan.   

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