Taiwan confirmed an H7N9 bird flu infection in a traveler returning to the island from China, the first incidence of the killer virus spreading outside the mainland.
A 53-year-old Taiwanese man tested positive for the strain of avian flu after a business trip to the eastern city of Suzhou and returning to Taiwan via Shanghai, Minister of Health Chiu Wen-ta said at a briefing in Taipei yesterday. The patient, who is in critical condition in an isolation room, didn’t come into contact with birds and poultry, Chiu said.
The first discovery of the virus outside China, 10 years after an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, may lead to increased scrutiny of travelers into and out of the country. Taiwan’s largest trade partner is battling to control spreading of the virus, which so far has killed 23, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from reports released by the government and World Health Organization.
“With any new influenza virus that emerges, the concern is that it could genetically mutate to become easily transmissible between human beings,” Raina MacIntyre, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of New South Wales, said in an interview before the announcement of Taiwan’s confirmed case. “With all past pandemics, and even with SARS, they were spread around the world by travel.”
Suzhou is in Jiangsu province, where more than 20 cases of the new bird flu strain have been reported. China has tallied 109 infections since the virus was discovered in March.
Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control said in a statement that the infected male “had not been exposed to birds and poultry during his stay in Suzhou and had not consumed undercooked poultry or eggs.” He developed his illness three days after returning to Taiwan and came in contact with at least 139 people including 110 hospital workers, according to the CDC.
Authorities are monitoring three medical staff who have exhibited symptoms of upper respiratory infection after coming in contact with the patient wearing protective gear, it said. Three others who came in contact without wearing protective gear have shown no symptoms, and are also being monitored.
In respect to human-to-human transmission, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” said Ian Mackay, an associate professor of clinical virology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, in an e-mail late yesterday.
“There is also no publicly available data to indicate that H7N9 is not easily transmitted via a human-to-human route,” Mackay said. “If there is any tiny upside to this news tonight, it’s that perhaps we will see this testing conducted.”
The SARS virus, which killed more than 770 worldwide, arrived in Taiwan from China in February 2003 before infecting 346 people locally. There’s no evidence that H7N9 is easily transmitted among people, the WHO has said.
Infection control in Taiwan works fast as a result of its previous experience with SARS, Minister of Health Chiu told Bloomberg News. The discovery of H7N9 comes exactly a decade after SARS forced a shutdown and quarantine of an entire Taipei hospital. Administrators at Hoping Hospital were tried in court and found not guilty of an alleged cover-up of infections that led to the spread of the virus, the Taipei-based Liberty Times reported.