Two men in Shanghai have died and a woman is gravely ill from a new strain of bird flu, H7N9, that was not previously known to infect humans. One of men, aged 87, died on March 4, and the other, aged 27, died on March 10, according to Chinese health authorities.
The younger victim reportedly worked in a street food stall serving pork, drawing speculation that his death might be linked to the thousands of dead pigs found near Shanghai’s main source of drinking water. However, he contracted the virus several weeks before the first dead pigs were found in the Huangpu River. While pigs can play a role in the formation of new viruses, there is no evidence they carry H7N9.
Still, the deaths are troubling since they suggest that a previously innocuous avian virus has become deadly. “This time it has caused deaths and critical conditions, even in young patients,” University of Hong Kong Centre of Infection president Dr Ho Pak-leung told the South China Morning Post. “This shows that there is a chance of virus mutation.” Health authorities in the region are already on high alert over a new coronavirus that has caused nearly a dozen deaths.
Symptoms of the H7N9 avian influenza virus begin with coughing and fever, which later develop into pneumonia and difficulty breathing. The three victims, including a 35-year-old woman from Chuzhou in neighboring Anhui Province who is in critical condition, did not know each other. The state news agency Xinhua reported that “no abnormalities were detected among 88 of their close contacts.”