The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization are recommending increased biosecurity safeguards response to the A(H7N9) influenza virus appearing in China.
As of late Sunday, the WHO reports 21 confirmed human cases of the virus, which has spread from avian species to humans. Of the 21 cases, six people have died, 12 are classified as severe and three are mild cases.
More than 530 close contacts of the confirmed cases are being closely monitored. An inter-government task force has also been established, with the National Health and Family Planning Commission leading the coordination along with the Ministry of Agriculture and other key ministries in China.
The animal health sector has intensified investigations into the possible sources and reservoirs of the virus.
FAO says unlike other influenza strains, including the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, this new virus is hard to detect in poultry because the novel virus causes little to no signs of disease in animals.
"Unlike H5N1, where chickens were dying off on a large scale, with this virus we don't have a red flag that immediately signals an infection," says Juan Lubroth, FAO Chief Veterinary Officer. "This means farmers may not be aware that virus is circulating in their flock. Biosecurity and hygiene measures will help people protect themselves from virus circulating in seemingly healthy birds or other animals."
FAO commends China's quick notification of human cases and subsequent release of detailed information to the public on the nature of the virus and other precautionary measures. With this information, FAO and the international scientific community have been analyzing the virus sequence in hopes of better understanding its behavior and its potential impact humans and animals.
"With the virus harder to detect, good biosecurity measures become even more essential to reducing the risk of virus transmission to humans and animals. Good biosecurity and hygiene measures implemented by farmers, livestock producers, transporters, market workers and consumers represent the first and most effective way to protect the food chain," Lubroth said.
Though no vaccine is currently available for the virus, the WHO is working with research partners to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. WHO notes that there currently is no evidence of ongoing human-to-human transmission, however animal owners must be on high alert while the virus is being evaluated.
The first human infection was reported April 1, the Centers for Disease Control says. No cases have appeared outside of China.