H7N9: The threat and opportunity

By Health Team on Wed, 17 April 2013

Written by Susann Roth, Senior Social Development Specialist and Jean-Jacques Bernatas, Medical Doctor 

In the last weeks a new strain of a bird flu virus was observed for the first time in humans in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The virus, which has been traced to a reassortment of genes from wild birds in East Asia and chickens in East PRC, poses many urgent questions and raises global public health concerns about an expanding outbreak.

Should you be concerned?

As of April 16, 63 confirmed cases of H7N9 in humans and 14 deaths have been reported in the PRC. The number sounds small, however, what is concerning is that the virus clearly has the potential to cause severe disease and it is unclear how the virus is transmitted. The virus has genetic characteristics that suggest it might be better adapted than other bird flu strains to infect mammals -- including humans -- and people have no resistance to it. On top of that, previous vaccines developed for H7 virus strains didn’t cause strong immune response in humans, which means that further research is needed to develop an effective vaccine in case of an increasing outbreak of H7N9. 

Even though a delayed notification of the initial cases is mentioned, the case detection is now more effective, and hundreds of contact persons are under investigation. However, since the symptoms could be also silent or mild in humans and the mode of transmission is not yet totally clear, we might still only hear about “the tip of the iceberg” of the total infections. 

Positive is that strengthened public health security in the region clearly improved cross-border surveillance, risk assessment and response, all core areas of the International Health Regulations and the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases 2010 (APSED).  Support for implementation of the IHR and APSED in the Greater Mekong Region comes also from ADB, recognizing its important role as regional development bank to address public goods in regional cooperation efforts and mitigate negative economic impacts from public health threats.

The negative economic impact from H7N9 is already visible. 

In the case of H7N9 the economic impact comes to this point mainly from secondary reactions, which this infection causes, also triggered by the memories of and experiences with SARS. Chinese companies involved in the farming of eggs, poultry and pigs were among the first to suffer but Citi Research forecast in a report that insurance, airlines, consumer staples and retailing sectors would all be negatively affected by this current H7N9 outbreak.

What precautions can you take?

First, it is important to follow the advisories given by public health experts. 

  • Hand washing is one of the most important measures to prevent the spread of infection. Use preferably alcohol-based hands sanitizers extensively, or either soap and water if hands are soiled. 
  • Cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Use tissue and dispose it properly after using. Did you know that sneeze speed can reach up to 165 km per hour?
  • Always wash hands after having any contact with respiratory secretions. Studies show that 70-90% of people actually do pick their nose and often touch their face.
  • Avoid contact with secretions of people who have respiratory illnesses and remind others of respiratory etiquette. 
  • Stay at home when you observe signs of respiratory illness or fever.
  • Follow health advice when traveling and consult a health professional when traveling to outbreak-affected regions.

Second, whatever your role in the development field is, think about the possible health impacts: how you can mitigate negative and promote positive ones. Public health security is everybody’s concern and can easily be addressed in regional cooperation work, transport, water and sanitation, urban development, and yes, even in finance projects.

As much as H7N9 is a threat to the Asia and the Pacific region, it also provides opportunities to sharpen priorities in regional health security and strengthen surveillance, risk management and response to public health threats beyond borders and sectors. ADB can play an important role by facilitating the “across border” and “across sector” aspect through advice in knowledge transfer, policy work and financing. 

Elbert Hubbard said, “The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today”.

Let’s start today to prevent and build resilience against health threats in the region since health does not only affect us personally but also our business at ADB.

Subjects: