ROME – In China, human infected with the avian influenza (H7N9) virus are on the rise. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warns that the approaching Chinese New Year festivities provide an opportunity for further spread and human exposure to this virus.
FAO points out that millions of people and poultry are expected to be on the move and many households will slaughter poultry at home to celebrate the New Year. As a result, FAO is calling on neighboring countries to remain vigilant in the face of A(H7N9) and other avian influenza viruses, such as highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1.

Since late December, the number of human infections with H7N9 has considerably increased in East and Southeast China, according to the World Health Organization. However, the increase in cases was expected, as influenza viruses traditionally show increased activity during the winter months. To date, no other country has reported influenza A(H7N9) in humans, animals or in the market place.

Evidence indicates that people become infected following close contact with infected live poultry, primarily in live-bird markets or when slaughtering birds at home. No sustained human-to-human transmission has occurred so far, according to WHO. Genetic analysis by FAO reference centers has revealed that the virus has not changed significantly since its emergence last year.

"Chinese authorities are enforcing important measures to reduce the risk of human exposure to the A(H7N9) virus," said Juan Lubroth, FAO chief veterinary officer. "This includes temporary closures of live bird markets, regular market rest days, improved hygiene in markets, heightened and ongoing surveillance in poultry and live bird market environment, and control of poultry movements.
"But countries need to stay alert, as the virus continues to circulate in poultry without showing any visible clinical signs,” he added. “The risk to humans remains, especially over the next few months and particularly during the Chinese New Year's holiday period.”

FAO is assisting a number of high-risk member countries in preventing and preparing for possible A(H7N9) introductions into their poultry populations, conducting risk assessment, contingency planning and expansion of diagnostic capabilities, and risk based surveillance.

FAO, with strong support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has assisted countries in South and South-East Asia with the implementation of animal and environmental surveillance at live bird markets and on farms since June last year. FAO supported projects are also underway to assist some countries in Africa to prevent and be prepared for facing threats from avian influenza viruses, including A(H7N9).

Essential to fighting this threat is focusing on good biosecurity standards on farms and markets, regular market cleaning and disinfection, and targeted surveillance in areas that have direct or indirect live poultry trade with infected areas. If infection in animals is shown or suspected to be confined to a specific area, culling should be considered as long as it performed in a humane way with appropriate compensation paid to producers and marketers.