China Kills 20,000 Birds As H7N9 Bird Flu Toll Rises

China has killed 20,000 birds in a live poultry marketplace in Shanghai, the latest step in the ongoing H7N9 bird flu crisis that became public knowledge on Sunday. That’s when authorities in Shanghai first revealed that two men had already died and a woman was critically ill.

As of Friday, the death toll stands at six.

On Thursday, with five already dead, officials said that they’d succeeded in linking the strain to some pigeons in a live bird marketplace in Shanghai.

What’s unusual about this strain of the H7N9 virus is that it hadn’t ever before infected humans. Instead, it was viewed primarily as a threat to poultry and economic interests. All that changed with the new strain, which has killed known poultry butchers but also a few people who didn’t work with live birds.

The World Health Organization, as well as Chinese health officials, have stressed that there is no cause for panic or for travel restrictions. The H7N9 bird flu still doesn’t seem to be able to spread from human-to-human contact — only by handling infected poultry.

Among the 20,000 birds killed Thursday and Friday by Chinese officials are chickens, ducks, and geese, as well as the pigeons. Shanghai’s live poultry markets will be closed as of Saturday morning.

An international team of researchers from around the world are now scrambling to contain the outbreak.

One problem with the H7N9 bird flu virus strain is that it doesn’t make many birds feel particularly sick, according to Joseph Bresee, chief of epidemiology for CDC’s Influenza Division. That makes it hard to track down where the disease came from — or what birds actually have it.

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China’s health authorities have previously published a detailed analysis of four of the deaths in an eastern province, as well as an extensive examination of their contacts. They couldn’t find any cases where the H7N9 bird flu had spread from a sick human to another human, and the CDC said that there are still no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission.

In an unrelated outbreak of a different bird flu virus, Mexican authorities were recently forced to slaughter two million birds, leading to fears of price increases for eggs and chicken.

With six human lives already lost, and health workers still in the process of tracking down the source of the H7N9 bird flu virus, it’s likely that China will have to kill even more than 20,000 birds before it’s all over.

[goose family photo courtesy Elaine Radford]