The H7N9 virus is one of the influenza viruses that occur mainly in chicken birds. For humans, such viruses are usually not dangerous. However, mutations can cause people to become infected with the virus. With them, the H7N9 virus can cause severe pneumonia, which can be fatal. For the first time in 2013, cases of H7N9 virus were reported in China and Taiwan.
What is the bird flu?
The term bird flu is a colloquial term for a viral disease that affects birds. In addition to chickens and turkeys, for example, wild waterfowl can also be infected. The virus is transmitted via the air or via the faeces of the animals.
The disease is caused by certain viruses belonging to the influenza A virus group. Well-known avian influenza viruses are, for example, the influenza A virus H5N1 and the influenza A virus H7N9. The name of each virus depends on its surface structure. For humans, the bird flu viruses are usually safe.
People can also get infected
However, genetically modified viruses can cause people to become infected with bird flu. Transmission usually takes place through direct contact with an infected animal. Such a mutation has occurred in the current Asian bird flu virus H7N9.
If the virus continues to mutate, a new pathogen could emerge that can be transmitted directly from person to person. This could happen, for example, if the H7N9 virus combined with a conventional flu virus. A human-to-human transmission could trigger a flu pandemic.
Avian flu 2013: The H7N9 virus
The H7N9 virus was first detected in humans in 2013. The first cases of illness in China became known in February, and soon afterwards people were also affected in Taiwan. It is believed that those affected by direct contact with poultry have been infected with bird flu.
According to the WHO, transmission of the H7N9 virus from poultry to humans is much easier than with other bird flu viruses. As a result, the virus is classified by the WHO as particularly dangerous.
Contagious with H7N9
In general, avian influenza viruses can only be transmitted to humans in close contact with the diseased animal. Contagion is possible, for example, when viruses are inhaled from feces or mucous membrane secretions or brought into contact with dirty mouth or nose. Also by visiting a poultry market is a contagion possible.
Whether there are other contagion pathways in the H7N9 virus is still unclear. First cases meanwhile indicate that a transmission from person to person is possible. In addition, certain bird flu viruses may be infected by contact with eggs or raw poultry meat from infected animals.
For birds, the H7N9 virus is safe, since they have little or no disease symptoms. This makes the containment of the virus particularly difficult: Without symptoms it is not easy to see which animals are infected and which are not.
In humans, the bird flu virus usually begins with typical flu symptoms such as fever, head and body aches, fatigue and cough noticeable. In addition, diarrhea and vomiting can occur. In addition, the H7N9 virus can lead to severe pneumonia and severe respiratory distress. The disease can be fatal in severe cases.
However, not all individuals who are infected with the H7N9 virus are likely to experience disease symptoms. From China at least the case of a boy infected with the virus is known, which showed no disease symptoms.
Avian flu: vaccine can protect
A special vaccine could provide safe protection against the H7N9 virus. However, research is currently being conducted on a suitable vaccine. The introduction of the vaccine is also planned only in the event that the virus spreads more than currently expected.
Currently available flu medication seems to help against the H7N9 virus. If the virus continues to change, it is also possible that these drugs are no longer effective.
How to protect yourself from bird flu
In Germany, you do not have to worry about being infected with the H7N9 virus right now. Currently there are no known cases in Germany or Europe. Nevertheless, it does not hurt to follow general protective measures. In case of doubt you can protect yourself not only from bird flu but also from other infections.
It is particularly important that you comply with well-known hygiene rules. Wash your hands regularly for at least 30 seconds and do not touch your face with your hands. Also avoid contact with infected persons.
When handling bird droppings (for example, when removing the feces from the car window), it is recommended to wear gloves. Throw the used cloth then best away. Also, be sure to process eggs and poultry meat hygienically and to eat just thoroughly. In this way, you can not only avert bird flu in case of emergency, but also prevent other infections such as Salmonella infection.