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China bird flu can still pose threat: expert

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The bird flu outbreak in China hasn’t crossed over to Japan, but Tokyo must stay on guard against the virus, the head of the government’s new influenza countermeasures panel said Monday.

The H7N9 virus spreading in eastern China and Taiwan has already killed more than 30 people, but some areas, including Shanghai, have lowered their alert levels since the spread abated.

The drop in patients could be attributed to the closure of bird markets and safer culling of poultry, Shigeru Omi said at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.

But Omi said it is unwise to let one’s guard down.¥

“It is too early to judge that the outbreak is (nearing an) end,” he said.

In the past, bird flu cases have declined during the summer only to return once temperatures drop later in the year. There is no way to tell if the virus has stopped spreading among poultry, Omi said.

Much remains unknown about the new virus, including its origin, he said.

Compared with other bird flu strains, however, the H7N9 virus appears to spread faster from poultry to humans, and its symptoms are severe.

While a pandemic stemming from human-to-human infection isn’t likely at this point, future scenarios include anything from the outbreak stabilizing to mutation, which could allow it to cause wider damage.

There “really is so much we don’t know” about the virus, Omi said.

As for measures to prevent it from spreading, he said the initial response is always crucial.

“Taking the orthodox approach is still extremely important,” Omi said, mentioning how shutting down schools, movie theaters and other facilities to prevent the spread of the virus proved crucial in containing previous outbreaks.

Providing vaccines, limiting overseas travel and isolating patients will be key as well, Omi said, adding that fighting an outbreak can only succeed with an “All-Japan effort.”