House Republicans sounded the alarm Friday over an avian flu threat that’s cresting in China, saying it underscores the need to finish and vet an overdue plan for responding to pandemic flu at home.
The H7N9 avian influenza virus mainly affects people who have been exposed to live poultry. It has infected nearly 1,000 people in Asia, and had a 40 percent fatality rate since its discovery in 2013, though the latest spurt of cases has been worse than previous ones, according to the World Health Organization.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, and Rep. Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, say it is more important than ever to have a solid response plan in case the virus or other types of pandemic flu reach the U.S.
Last year, the Obama administration told Congress it was updating a decade-old plan to incorporate lessons from the U.S.’ brush with the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. The Health and Human Services Department told lawmakers it would release the document before the end of last year, but there’s still no plan.
“The need for the updated Pandemic Influenza Plan is vital as there is a current potential pandemic threat,” Mr. Walden and Mr. Murphy said in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
They cited an expert who said that H7N9 poses the largest pandemic threat in the last 100 years, raising the specter of yet another global health scare after recent outbreaks of Ebola in West Africa and the mosquito-borne Zika virus in the Americas.
WHO, the public health arm of the U.N., is closely monitoring the situation in China, where government officials recently reported 15 new cases in nine separate provinces.
Of the 11 cases with enough information on outcomes, two of the people had died, one had pneumonia and seven had severe pneumonia, while one case was considered mild.
Twelve of the 15 infected persons had been exposed to live poultry, and one was exposed to live poultry sold by street vendors. It’s unclear if the remaining two were exposed to the virus-carrying animals.
All told, WHO says 1,393 lab-confirmed cases have been reported since its discovery four years ago.
The organization said the latest spurt, which began in October and marks the fifth epidemic “wave” of H7N9, which is the worst one so far.
“The H7N9 virus is an extremely important threat and its continued spread in China is very worrisome as the number of human cases has been accelerating and its ability to cause severe disease in bird species seems to have increased,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Though human cases are not widespread, when they occur they can be very severe and fatalities occur.”
WHO advised travelers to countries with H7N9 to avoid poultry farms and markets. The virus hasn’t shown the ability to transmit from human to human over a sustained period, though clusters of cases have been reported among patients housed in the same hospital ward.
“Avian viruses have to evolve adaptations to the human body to become efficient at spreading between humans,” Dr. Adalja said. “It will be important to study the human cases in detail to track any changes in the virus and to be on alert for heightened human transmission risks.”
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