New threat

New threat

The spread of a new influenza virus  A(H7N9) is the latest medical scare in the world. As in the case of some new strains of viruses which caused infection and spread fast, the origin of the A(H7N9) virus is also in China. It has affected about 130 people in that country and caused 27 deaths so far.

Medical statistics from China are not always reliable. But even if the figures are on the lower side they are cause for concern because there is hardly any clear information about the nature of the virus,  ways of its  transmission  and how it can be countered. It has also been noticed that it is spreading fast, after the first case was reported in Shanghai in February. The World Health Organisation has issued an alert, calling it one of the most lethal influenza viruses.

The source of the virus is not completely known, though it is suspected that it is of avian origin, as in the case of some other recent viruses.  But it has been also detected in people who have had no contact with birds. Since there have been many cases where no symptoms of the infection were observed, treatment becomes difficult. In fact the correct method of treatment itself is not clear because of the lack of sufficient information about the virus. One good sign is that the recovery rate is not bad, though again the reasons for the recovery are not fully known. Since migratory birds are also believed to be among the origins, countries neighbouring China, including India, stand the risk of  contagion if the virus is not controlled.

There have been quite a few viral epidemics that spread across countries in this century. They include SARS in 2003, H5N1 bird flu in 2005 and H1N1 bird flu in 2009. Research on them have yielded better understanding of the nature and methods of transmission of  viruses. Some vaccines have also been developed. Countries have  acquired greater expertise in taking preventive measures and have gained from co-operation. China was ready to share information  and even samples of the virus with the outside world in the case of the latest infection. This is a welcome departure from its past policy. More research and coordinated international efforts are needed to understand the new threats to health.

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