March 31, 2013 6:59 pm

China deaths raise bird flu fears

An old neighbourhood in Shanghai©AFP

Two people in China have died and another is critically ill from a strain of bird flu that has never been passed to humans before, according to China’s health authorities.

The deaths of two men, one 87 and one 27 years old, in Shanghai have raised the spectre of a new epidemic 10 years after the Sars virus caused panic throughout Asia and the world.

The two men contracted the H7N9 avian influenza virus in late February and died in early March suffering from acute pneumonia and breathing difficulties, according to an announcement from China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, reported by state media on Sunday.

The commission was able to identify the infections, and that of a woman in Anhui province near Shanghai who fell ill in early March and remains in a critical condition, as H7N9 on Friday after extensive testing that ruled out other strains of bird flu.

So far, none of the 88 people who came into contact with the three known carriers of the virus has shown any symptoms of the disease, according to state media, suggesting it is not easily transmitted among humans.

There are no known vaccines for the H7N9 virus, which has previously only been found in bird populations and the health commission said it does not know how the three people contracted the disease.

None of the three people has the same surname and all were infected at different times, suggesting they are not related to each other and probably contracted the disease separately. The two men in Shanghai both died less than two weeks after contracting the virus.

The decision to publicly report these unusual infections contrasts with the situation 10 years ago, when Chinese authorities initially went to great lengths to cover up the true extent of the Sars epidemic that eventually killed nearly 800 people, most of them in mainland China and Hong Kong. Deep mistrust of official cover-ups remains in China.

Just last week a message circulated online by a citizen in east China caused consternation and attracted official ire when it warned people not to travel to the scenic city of Hangzhou because a young couple and their child had contracted a severe mystery respiratory illness there.

An investigation by state media on Friday found that a 25-year-old man had died from an unidentified respiratory disease while his 25-year-old wife and two-year-old child remained in a stable condition in a hospital in the city of Suzhou.

Doctors from the hospital told state media they had not identified the exact cause of the disease but unknown viruses were common in large Chinese hospitals and doctors believed the chances of further infection were low.

“Every year when the seasons change all big hospitals [in China] will have cases of severe pneumonia with unidentified origin but they’re not necessarily contagious,” said Zhang Xuehua, director of of the intensive care unit at Suzhou Number 5 hospital.

Meanwhile, Hangzhou police detained the person who originally posted the alert about the family’s illness on the internet and punished her with five days in jail for spreading malicious rumours online.

Another person was given 10 days in detention for spreading malicious rumours after he claimed the couple and their child were infected with a virus spread by a US company called “Umbrella” – an apparent reference to a fictional corporation from the popular video game and film series Resident Evil.

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