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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Global travel gives wings to H7N9 bird flu

There hasn’t been much news coverage of the deadly H7N9 bird flu, but recent reports trickling out of Beijing demand attention.

Perhaps you’ve seen bits and pieces of the story over the past week: According to Reuters, there is a new strain of the old bird flu (H5N1), or avian influenza, that has sickened some 60 people and killed 13 in the central Chinese province of Henan, in an area near Zhoukou and in Shanghai.

Last Saturday, the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a 7-year-old child in Beijing was infected with the virus, the first case seen outside the Yangtze Delta region. Reports of the new flu strain surfaced just two months ago. Many victims reportedly had direct contact with infected fowl. There is no evidence yet of human-to-human transmission.

Whenever I write about mutant viruses and the unlikely but real threat of pandemic, the subject seems more appropriate to melodramas like “Contagion” and “Hot Zone,” yet it pays to pay attention. We live in a world where a cargo of infected animals can move around the world in hours. Sick people can get on an airplane, which is, after all, like a Petri dish, and carry life-threatening illnesses to big cities around the globe. The hot-spot disease percolating in a small Chinese village can come to a boil very quickly thousands of miles away.

If knowledge is power, then we owe it to ourselves to become educated about the risks of H7N9 spreading. That said, the risk at the moment seems small. If I had a trip planned to China in the next month, I would go. I’m not an actuary, but I am a traveler, and I would just toss the risk of disease in with the risk of terrorist attacks, ring-of-fire earthquakes, tsunamis and such.

Still, this bug has my attention, because it can change.

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