Australian health authorities are preparing to combat China's new strain of bird flu amid fears it is one of the most lethal influenza viruses the world has seen.
While there is still no evidence people can spread H7N9 to other humans, the government is warning travellers and doctors to be alert to symptoms and Australian scientists are working on a vaccine.
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Bird flu case in Taiwan
The first case of the H7N9 bird flu strain outside mainland China has been detected in a Taiwanese man, hitting poultry businesses in the country.
Deputy director of the World Health Organisation's Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Ian Barr, said his team had acquired samples of the virus to develop a vaccine with CSL.
While his team is one of several working on a vaccine worldwide, Dr Barr said it should have a solid candidate in two or three weeks. ''We need to be vigilant. This virus obviously has the ability to infect humans at some level. It doesn't appear that it is easily transmissible between people which is good, but we have to be ready because these viruses can change,'' he said.
On Wednesday Keiji Fukuda, who is leading researchers for the World Health Organisation in China, said they were still trying to understand the virus but it appeared ''unusually dangerous''.
''This is definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen,'' said Dr Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security. ''We think this virus is more transmissible to humans than H5N1,'' he said, referring to the strain which WHO estimates has killed more than 360 people since 2003.
The team said the likely source was poultry, as chickens, ducks and pigeons from poultry markets had tested positive for H7N9. China has confirmed 108 cases and 22 deaths since March 31, with a higher proportion of cases among older people. The first case
diagnosed outside of China was in Taiwan on Wednesday.
According to news reports there, the 53-year-old man, who had been working in the Jiangsu province of China before he fell ill, claimed he had not been exposed to birds or poultry, nor had he eaten any undercooked poultry or eggs. Experts are worried the virus may mutate into a form easily transmissible among humans.
Chinese officials have acknowledged ''family clusters'' where members of a single family have become infected, but they have declined to put it down to human-to-human transmission. Such cases could be examples of what officials call limited human-to-human transmission, in which those in close contact with the ill become infected, as opposed to widespread, or ''sustained'', transmission.
So far most H7N9 cases have been confined to Shanghai and nearby provinces in eastern China. A spokeswoman for the Australian health department said the national medical stockpile included antiviral drugs, Oseltamivir and Zanamivir, which are effective against the new bird flu strain if taken early in the illness.