An unexpected death has occurred in southern China, as a 56-year-old woman tested positive for H3N8 avian influenza. This is the first time a human has died from this particular strain of bird flu, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Although H3N8 is one of the most commonly found subtypes of flu in birds, it has not been identified in humans before two cases emerged in China in April and May last year.
The woman, who had a history of cancer and other medical conditions, had been hospitalized in February after contracting severe pneumonia. Despite medical intervention, she passed away last month. According to WHO, the case was identified through the severe acute respiratory infection (SARI) surveillance system. However, no close contacts of the victim showed symptoms of illness or were infected.
All three individuals who contracted H3N8 in China are believed to have come into contact with the virus at live poultry markets. The Chinese government has heightened monitoring for the strain, and the risk of further infections is considered low. Nevertheless, given the ever-evolving nature of influenza viruses, WHO emphasizes the importance of global surveillance to detect virologic, epidemiologic, and clinical changes that may affect human or animal health.
It’s worth noting that the H3N8 virus is not related to the H5N1 bird flu pandemic that has caused massive devastation among poultry and wild birds worldwide in the last 18 months. H5N1 has also spread to mammals like foxes, bears, and domestic cats. The H5N1 virus attaches itself to receptors in the lungs, which the virus lacks the ability to readily bond with, limiting its ability to infect humans. As such, only poultry workers, who breathe in contaminated faecal dust, typically contract the virus.
On the other hand, H3N8 is less harmful to both wild birds and domestic poultry than H5N1 and has been circulating since 2002 after first appearing in North American waterfowl. It’s known to infect horses, dogs, and seals as well.