Six people are dead from the H7N9 strain of avian flu. The number of infected has grown to to 14. A new scare just hit Hong Kong. The United States has begun early research for a vaccine. And now China has slaughtered 20,000 chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons — and shut down its live poultry markets — to try and cut off the health risk at the source. So: Is it time to panic yet?
Well, not exactly.
We're not doctors, obviously, but the people at the World Health Organization said on Friday that they still haven't found proof of "sustained human-to-human transmission" of H979, reports Reuters. That's the key difference between this latest scare going from a relatively isolated virus incident into full-fledged Contagion panic. In Hollywood terms, we're about at the stage where the pig has left the farm but not yet arrived at the table with Gwyneth Paltrow. And while H979 isn't thought to be quite horror-movie bad, we might be at the point where Kate Winslet is about to get called in: The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is already working to develop a vaccine, CNN reports, although U.S. and Chinese scientists still haven't exactly accounted for how humans developed the virus.
In order to stem the tide, China has culled tens of thousands of birds along with a poultry-market shutdown. And while 20,000 animals might seem a lot of stock, well, Mexico had bird flu fears of their own last year and killed 8 million chickens in August as a precaution. So, that's another good takeaway — provided you are not a duck, goose, or chicken hanging out in Shanghai.
Feel better? Whew.
While the first human-to-human transmission contact still hasn't been determined, there is the frightening reality that, in less than a week, 14 people have been identified as infected with the virus — and now six of them have died. All of the infected were found "in the coastal area of eastern China. Authorities there began reporting the first cases on Sunday. Four of the deaths happened in Shanghai, the two others in Zhejiang," reports CNN, and according to the South China Morning Post, a 7-year-old in Hong Kong showed signs of the H729 strain and has been put in an isolation ward. (She was visiting the Shanghai region, too.)
"It is really a severe illness but cases are being well handled and put into intensive care units. There doesn't seem to be any indication of infections in hospital so far," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told reporters in Geneva on Friday. He added: "Remember even that if they are infected, you still need to try to find out if they contracted the virus from one another, or from a common environmental source."