Israel's Health Ministry Prepares for New, Fatal Bird Flu From China

Ministry officials issue guidelines to doctors and warn Israelis to be on guard if they are traveling to China, where the outbreak of H7N9 bird flu has left six people dead and a total number of 16 reported infections nationwide.

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With the spread of a new, fatal strain of bird flu in China, Israel's Health Ministry has issued instructions to its doctors on how to handle patients that are affected by suspicious cases of acute respiratory illness.

The H7N9 virus is from the "A" family of bird flu strains and originated among doves, according to initial reports. H7N9 viruses had not previously been documented in humans and were thought to infect only birds. Chinese health authorities recently reported the first six human fatalities from the new virus strain, which is spreading across China.

There are still no documented cases of the virus being transmitted from person to person, with all known infected individuals having been in contact with birds.

Emilia Anis, the director of the Israeli Health Ministry's Division of Epidemiology, has issued instructions to the ministry’s district and sub-district doctors for locating suspicious cases of possible H7N9 infections.

"The Health Ministry is following the data published around the world and is in contact with the relevant authorities," said Anis. "Until now, there have been no known instances of the disease outside of China."

The deaths from the disease were reported in six unconnected cases in eastern China. The first person to die from or be diagnosed with the virus was a 38 year-old man in China's Zhejiang Province, whose infection was reported on March 7. A 64 year-old man also from Zhejiang Province was later reported to have died from the virus. Then, a 48-year-old resident of Shanghai Province was reported dead after being infected.

On Friday, Chinese authorities reported another three deaths and 14 hospitalizations in serious condition from the disease in the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The cases were reportedly unconnected.

In light of the growing number of incidents, the World Health Organization has instructed countries around the globe to take precautions to prevent the virus' spread. At the same time, an effort to development a vaccine for the virus has begun in the United States.

The Israeli Health Ministry’s preparations for the arrival of the virus to the country are similar those it took in response to the spread of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in 2006. H5N1 emanated from China beginning in December 2003 and led to death in more than 50 percent of the documented cases. While the H5N1 virus was identified in birds in several sites in the Israel in the past decade, no people are known to have been infected here. In contrast, in Egypt, 168 people were diagnosed with H5N1, and 60 of them died.

Based on Health Ministry guidelines, patients displaying acute and severe respiratory illness and having visited China 10 days prior to the appearance of symptoms will be treated on suspicion of having H7N9 and hospitalized in isolation in negative pressure rooms. They will be treated by teams of doctors wearing protective goggles and masks. If a patient is diagnosed with the virus, their relatives will undergo medical tracking for 10 days to determine whether they carry or have been infected with the virus.

Sources at the Health Ministry emphasized that at present no recommendation against travel to China has been issued. But they said visitors to China should maintain strict hygiene in the country, including washing their hands with water and soap or a disinfecting agent after using the restroom, handling food or coming in contact with an animal or sick person. Visitors should also refrain from coming into contact with live or dead poultry or poultry excrement in markets or coops and only eat cooked eggs and other poultry products, they said.

Anyone who experiences serious respiratory illness within 10 days of returning from China should immediately contact their doctor.

Women wearing face masks Wednesday in downtown Shanghai.Credit: Reuters

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