Responding to the occurrence of the H7N9 avian influenza virus in China requires strong biosecurity measures, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization says. Unlike other influenza strains, including 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. 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," said Juan Lubroth, Food and Agriculture Organization chief veterinary officer.
The organization 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, Food and Agriculture Organization 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.
While this new virus is being evaluated, the organization continues to recommend the following standard precautions:
- Keep all birds and livestock separate from people's living areas. Close contact with infected animals can put people at risk. Since H7N9 causes little to no signs of disease in birds, separate living areas for animals and people is key.
- Keep wild birds away from poultry and other animals, keep different types of bird and species of animal apart. Screens, fencing or nets can be used to separate species and help prevent transmission.
- Report sick or dead animals to the local veterinary (or public health) authorities. If this is not possible, tell your neighbors or community leaders. It is important that all signs of illness or sudden and unexplained deaths in poultry, farmed birds, wild birds or other animals are reported to the authorities so that they can deal with them safely and help stop the virus spreading.
- Wash your hands often to kill and remove the virus. You should always do so after handling birds or other animals, cooking or preparing animal products, and before eating.
- Eat well-cooked meat products.
- Do not eat sick or dead animals and do not give or sell them to others. Such animals should also not be fed to other animals.
- Seek immediate advice from your doctor if you show signs of fever after being in contact with poultry, farmed birds, wild birds or other animals.
- If the human threat is confirmed as animal in origin, culling would be appropriate as long as it is performed in a humane way with appropriate compensation made.
Food and Agriculture Organization is monitoring the situation closely through its wide network of country and regional offices and key partners, including the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
The Food and Agriculture Organization and OIE reference center, the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, is leading laboratory analysis in response to the situation. The scientific community is currently working to optimize diagnostic approaches in order to better detect this new strain of influenza virus.