Medical experts and researchers from the University of Nottingham, China Agricultural University in Beijing, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the virus has undergone several adaptive changes to cause severe animal infections and make it transmissible via the airborne route between animals.
"We demonstrated that an avian H3N8 virus isolated from a patient with severe pneumonia replicated efficiently in human bronchial and lung epithelial cells was extremely harmful in its effects in laboratory mammalian hosts and could be passed on through respiratory droplets," said Kin-Chow Chang, professor at the University of Nottingham.
H3N8 is a strain of bird flu, which is extremely rare in humans. (Related: UK confirms TWO cases of BIRD FLU in humans working at a poultry farm.)
The World Health Organization (WHO) said human infections with animal influenza variants are uncommon – typically following close exposure to dead or living animals bearing the virus.
Potential symptoms of contamination range from conjunctivitis, also referred to as "pink eye," and mild flu-like symptoms (body or muscle aches, chills, cough, feeling feverish, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and tiredness) to severe respiratory disorders or even death, if left untreated.
On March 27, WHO was notified by China's National Health Commission of one confirmed case of human infection with H3N8.
Detected through the severe acute respiratory infection (SARI) surveillance system, a 56-year-old female from Guangdong province reportedly fell ill on Feb. 22 and was hospitalized with severe symptoms of pneumonia on March 3. Thirteen days later, she died on March 16, the WHO said.
The United Nations agency further stated that the woman, who had multiple underlying conditions before the onset of H3N8 infection, had a history of wild bird presence around her home. None of her contacts had contracted the virus or developed it at the time.
Results of the environmental samples collected from the patient’s residence and the wet market where she spent time before the onset of her illness were positive for influenza A(H3).
It was likely that the Guangdong woman caught the disease from exposure to poultry in an open-air wet market where live animals, including poultry, are sold or bought. The Guangdong woman is the third recorded case of avian influenza A(H3N8) and its first recorded fatality.
The two previous cases of H3N8 bird flu in humans were also recorded in China last year – in April and May – both of which were children with regular exposure to poultry.
The first child had chickens and ducks in their backyard and was hospitalized when he fell ill. The second child frequently visited a wet market with poultry present and complained of mild symptoms. Both children recovered from their symptoms and all their close contacts were found to have tested negative for the virus.
"It appears that this virus does not have the ability to spread easily from person to person, and therefore the risk of it spreading among humans at the national, regional, and international levels is considered to be low," the Geneva-based WHO said.
H3N8 bird flu in humans has never been detected in the United States, but different strains of the virus have been found in mammals and birds and there has been some degree of preparedness against bird flu due to the current H5N1 outbreak.
Aside from increasing public awareness about bird flu, WHO advises countries to:
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Watch the following video about understanding the symptoms, spread and prevention of the bird flu virus.
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