H7N9 bird flu outbreak could pose 'serious risk' says WHO

New strain of disease has already killed 24 people in China and is mutating rapidly

A woman wears a face mask as she walks past a poster showing how to avoid the H7N9 avian influenza virus, by a road in Beijing on April 24, 2013. International experts probing China's H7N9 bi
(Image credit: 2013 AFP)

DOCTORS in the UK have been warned to look out for a new strain of bird flu that has killed 24 people and infected more than 120 in China. The strain poses a "serious threat" to human health, according to the World Health Organisation.

The H7N9 virus originated in China and so far all but one of the cases have been found there. The other was discovered in neighbouring Taiwan.

It is not thought that the disease can pass from human to human but the Daily Telegraph reports that GPs and health workers have been put on alert and ordered "to report any signs of influenza in people who have recently travelled from China".

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The paper adds that around 11,000 Britons travel to China each week, with around 3,500 Chinese visiting this country.

"Experts fear that while the disease is currently only being passed from birds to humans, it is changing rapidly and could start passing directly from person to person, raising the risk of a pandemic," says the paper.

The Guardian explains that five mutations are needed for the virus to be able to pass between humans, but it warns that H7N9 already has two of them. If it mutates again "it could spread worldwide with lethal effect".

According to the BBC "predicting which viruses will become deadly on a global scale is impossible", but it quotes Prof Jeremy Farrar, director-elect of the Wellcome Trust, who said: "Whenever an influenza virus jumps across from its normal host in bird populations into humans it is a cause for concern... It cannot be taken lightly."

He added that as the victims ranged in age between two and 81, it suggested that if a pandemic did occur it would put everyone at risk. Often older people are immune as they have been exposed to similar viruses in the past.

The last major bird flu virus to affect humans, H5N1, killed more than 300 people but can still not spread between humans.

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