The new type of flu which has been reported in China has killed around one fifth of those known to be infected. So far, 129 cases of the H7N9 flu strain have been recorded, with 31 of those people dying from the illness.
Chinese media report that nearly 60% people known to have been infected by the H7N9 virus are aged 60 or older.
Experts at the ESWI EU Flu Summit said it was too soon to tell whether the virus could cause a global flu pandemic. The death rate is a concern, say scientists, but it would appear that the virus is not spreading from person-to-person – a feature which would be required for a full-scale pandemic.
“All infections are sporadic and spread from animal to human,” said Prof Ab Osterhaus of Erasmus University in Rotterdam. “There is no evidence of on-going efficient human-to-human transmission.”
The next pandemic?
Prof Osterhaus refused to be drawn on whether the H7N9 virus would spread beyond China but he urged governments and health authorities to remain vigilant.
“The origin of the next pandemic is not known so we have to prepare. We need better surveillance, antiviral stockpiling and vaccine development.”
He said improved efforts to tackle annual flu epidemics would help Europe to deal with any global flu pandemic that might occur in future.
“There have been four flu pandemics in the last century where more than 50 million people have died. It is important to note that between pandemics just as many people have died from seasonal influenza,” Prof Osterhaus said.
Dr Colin Russel of Cambridge University said that while H7N9 was receiving a lot of attention due to its novelty, it would be a mistake to overlook the threat of H5N1 bird flu outbreaks.
“The threat of this new flu does nothing to diminish threat of H5N1. We are still in the same precarious situation today as we were five years ago. A small number of mutations – natural changes in the virus’s genetic make-up – could be enough to make a bird flu virus very dangerous,” he said.
Meanwhile, EU health ministers say has they have strengthened Europe’s capacity for dealing with a flu pandemic by agreeing a legal basis for coordinated vaccine procurement in the event of an emergency.
Irish Health Minister, Dr James Reilly, who chairs the EU Council of Health Ministers while Ireland holds the EU’s rotating six-month Presidency, said the decision would save lives and improve access to vaccines.
As part of a package of measures designed to counter ‘Serious Cross-border Threats to Health’, EU governments will jointly purchase pandemic vaccines rather than allow each national government to enter bilateral contracts with vaccine makers.
The declaration of an emergency would trigger a switch from the production of seasonal flu vaccines to the production of a vaccine against the pandemic strain of flu.
Dr Reilly said the move would be particularly welcome for smaller countries, some of which had limited access to vaccines during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
“This is a vital development for the health of EU citizens. We know that pandemics do not respect borders. It is also well known that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The decision will see Member States join forces in order to prepare for and act against future public health threats,” he said.
The deal also promises clearer risk and crisis communication to the public and healthcare professionals in the event of a pandemic.