How to protect yourself from the H7N9 bird flu

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Avoiding contact with birds and live poultry is your best defence against the H7N9 virus. (Thinkstock photo)

Health authorities worldwide are closely monitoring a deadly new strain of the avian influenza A virus called H7N9. Within a few months, this new avian flu strain has infected well over a hundred people, killing about a fifth of the victims. All but one of the cases occurred in China. How serious is the H7N9 bird flu?

“The avian influenza A (H7N9) is potentially deadly. Producing a vaccine to combat this new bird flu strain may however take several months. The good news is that bird flu does not spread easily from person to person,” says Dr Jenny Low, Senior Consultant at the Department of Infectious Disease, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

To date, majority of those infected with H7N9 have contracted it from infected birds and poultry. For the H7N9 bird flu to start spreading from person to person, it has to undergo five mutations. Two mutations have been identified. While there is no immediate threat of human-to-human spread of H7N9, Dr Low cautions against complacency.

“This is the first time the H7N9 virus is in the human population so we have no immunity to it. Practise good personal hygiene and see a doctor immediately if you suffer from persistent flu symptoms such as a high fever, breathing difficulty and cough, especially after an overseas trip. H7N9 can quickly progress to potentially fatal respiratory illness,” adds Dr Low.

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What is avian influenza A (H7N9)?

H7N9 is a type A influenza virus that affects birds and poultry and does not normally infect humans. This new avian flu strain is potentially deadly because this is the first time it has infected humans. So far, the transmission happens through direct contact with infected birds, poultry and their droppings.

Symptoms of bird flu

H7N9 bird flu symptoms are similar to those of normal flu. These include cough, high fever (38°C or higher) and shortness of breath. Worsening symptoms can lead to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), septic shock, multiple organ failure and death.

Majority of H7N9 bird flu patients fell seriously ill and developed severe respiratory illnesses that required hospitalisation and intensive care.

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Who are most at risk of getting H7N9 avian flu?

The following people are at greater risk of getting infected with the H7N9 avian flu:

  • Elderly people, age 65 and over
  • Young children below 5 years old
  • Pregnant women
  • People with medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease and chronic lung disease
  • Poultry farm workers
  • Those who eat raw eggs and undercooked poultry meat

6 tips to prevent H7N9 flu

Travellers to parts of China affected by the H7N9 avian flu should heed the following cautionary tips:

  1. Do not touch birds and poultry
  2. Eat only thoroughly cooked poultry and eggs
  3. Observe good personal hygiene such as washing your hands with soap and water before preparing food and after visiting the toilet, and do not touch your eyes, face or mouth with your hands
  4. Avoid crowded places and contact with people who have fever and flu
  5. Avoid visits to poultry farms and live bird or poultry wet markets
  6. See a doctor immediately if you feel sick upon returning from overseas, particularly China.

As scientists rush to develop a new vaccine for the avian influenza A (H7N9), infected patients are treated with normal influenza anti-viral drugs, such as Tamiflu and Relenza.

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This article was written by Teresa Cheong for Health Xchange, with expert input from the Department of Infectious Disease, Singapore General Hospital.

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Health Xchange's articles are meant for informational purposes only and cannot replace professional surgical, medical or health advice, examination, diagnosis, or treatment.