New Strain Of Avian Flu Worries Scientists

Scientists are scrambling to understand a bird flu virus never before found in humans. It grabbed world attention this past week after it infected and killed people in China. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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In China, authorities are stepping up efforts to contain the spread of a new strain of bird flu, which has killed six people across that country. It is the first time this particular virus, called H7N9, has been detected in humans. For more, Dr. Thomas Frieden joins us. He is the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He joins us on the line from his office in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome to the program.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, as we understand it, there's no evidence that this virus is transmitted from human to human. So, why is it causing so much concern at this point?

FRIEDEN: We've seen at least 16 cases over the past six weeks or so in four different provinces of China. Most or many of the cases are associated with animals, probably poultry. So, what we suspect is happening, although it's not proven yet, is that people who have contact with live poultry markets or birds in other ways are getting the virus from them and becoming severely ill. That would be concerning enough, but the fact that it doesn't seem to be causing severe illness in the birds makes it a little harder for us to track. So, right now it's a day-by-day thing to make sure that we're learning more each day.

MARTIN: Is there a chance that it could mutate into something that could be transferred from human to human, or it's hard to say at this point?

FRIEDEN: Well, so far, the evidence is pretty reassuring in that regard because none of the 16 cases have linkages one with another. So, this is encouraging. We're also not seeing large numbers of cases in children. And usually when a strain of influenza gets into a population, you see lots of cases with kids. So, all of that tells that, at this point, it doesn't appear to be spreading person to person. But, again, every day we learn more.

MARTIN: Dr. Frieden, how does the response in China compare to how authorities handled the SARS epidemic which hit Beijing 10 years ago?

FRIEDEN: Really, it's night to day compared to SARS 10 years ago. I think the Chinese government has recognized that the way they handled SARS was counterproductive, both in terms of health and in terms of economics. And they have been very open. We at the USCDC have had a very productive long-term relationship with the China CDC. In fact, we've helped them set up the monitoring systems for influenza throughout China, we've helped them improve their laboratory testing, and we've helped them gain the capacity to become a World Health Organization collaborating center on influenza. What that means is as soon as they found this new strain, they sequenced the genome and they posted that on the Internet for the whole world to see. And in fact, as they find additional strains, they're also posting those genomes on the Internet. That's a tremendous benefit, not just for China but for us and the entire world. Because China is safer today, we are safer today.

MARTIN: Dr. Thomas Frieden. He is the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks so much for talking with us.

FRIEDEN: Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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