The number of new confirmed H7N9 cases per day in China appears to be decreasing. A few weeks ago, the count was rising by some 10 new cases a day. On Tuesday, only two new cases were reported. Of the total 130 patients infected in China, 43 have since recovered. The virus has killed 31 people in China as of early May.

Experts have called H7N9 the most lethal bird flu virus so far, with no vaccine yet available. But China appears to have averted a pandemic, by shutting live animal markets in three cities, including Shanghai, which reported the first case of the virus.

Lu Hongzhou, president at Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, said: “After we shut those down in the city, there were no more new cases. That’s evident. So we should not just do this in Shanghai but all over the country as well. It should also be a long-term preventive measure against bird flu spreading. If livestock markets continue to operate with transactions carried out like in the past, the disease will recur. ” Even though the source of infection is yet unknown,

Chinese officials said out of the total 130 infected cases, two thirds had direct contact with live poultry. Minimising such contact will be a challenge, especially in rural China. Data from 2012 showed that about 49 per cent of China’s total population still lives in villages and nearly every household rears some form of livestock. Mr Lu said: “Some provinces like Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi still have sporadic cases, proving that the source of infection is not just within the Yangtze River Delta.

It’s possible that the virus exists in waterfowl, poultry and migratory birds in Southern China as well, which will be a huge challenge for us going forward.

“We can close down livestock markets in the cities but how do we manage the live fowl kept by every peasant household in the villages? The virus can also be like H5N1, with a few cases each year. This will be a huge challenge for us.”

Experts also expect the number of flu cases to go down as the temperature gets warmer in the coming months, but they doubt the virus will disappear completely.

The article was published online on May 10, 2013 at http://www.channelnewsasia.com.

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