VT Researchers Study New Flu

Jun 26, 2013

Chickens in a Chinese live bird market.
Credit Virginia Tech

A new strain of bird flu has been identified in China. Scientists at Virginia Tech are helping quickly analyze data to identify risk factors, limiting potential spread of the deadly virus.

The new strain of flu, H7N9 has been seen only in China.  So far, around one hundred and thirty cases have been confirmed. Some have proved fatal.  The virus appears to be affecting only people who handle live birds infected with the strain. 

Bryan Lewis is a computational epidemiologist from Virginia Tech.  His team was able to crunch available data about cases, transmission and other factors, quickly.  Armed with this timely information, the Chinese government took quick action.

"For instance, Shanghai in a sort of move that’s not typical of the Chinese, were a little more transparent than in previous instances and had informed the world and thought about it and admitted to the fact that maybe there is this potential situation brewing and they took some actions where they closed down all the live poultry markets based on the fact that they thought that poultry was the reservoir and that pretty much stopped the epidemic in its tracks," said Lewis.

There have been few new cases reported and no sign of the new H7N9 flu strain spreading.  Lewis says this is a case where health related social media played an important role.

"They were paying attention to this. They were harvesting information from publicly available sources, mainly news stories; some of the folks at health map were monitoring the Chinese version of Twitter called Wee bow. And they were actually able to start confirming cases more rapidly than the Chinese CDC was able to get it out there, which I think, further forced their hand to sort of be a little bit more open on and it might have kick started some of the responses and the openness in which they approached this situation, which might have been a little different than 5, 10 years ago.”

The poultry markets in Shanghai were reopened last week.  And while it’s still too early to tell weather H7N9 will change course, it appears to be on the wane.  But a new crowd-sourced form of studying disease outbreaks is here to stay.