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Avian flu outbreak a risk for travellers

Avian flu

Some 40 countries have reported outbreaks of avian flu since November 2016

Some 40 countries have reported outbreaks of avian flu, commonly known as bird flu, in wild birds and domestic poultry since November 2016. Since September 2016, a total of 120 people have been infected with a certain strain of this infectious illness in China. As many as a third of these individuals died as a result of the infection.

According to Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Travel Clinics and Tokai Medicross, these avian flu figures were recently reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centre for Diseases Control (CDC) in the United States. “South Africans, particularly those who are travelling, should be vigilant and avoid contact with birds, bird droppings, poultry farms and markets, as well as eating undercooked poultry and soft eggs,” advises Dr Vincent.

“Certain strains of bird flu, such as the influenza A H7N9 that is being reported from China, are highly contagious and could pose a serious threat to one’s health. Netcare Travel Clinics would advise travellers to China to be on the alert, although there is no cause for undue alarm,” he adds. “The CDC has issued a travel alert for China recommending that visitors avoid all contact with birds as far as possible when travelling to the country. However, the CDC has not recommended against travel to China.

“Local clinicians who see patients who present with respiratory illness within 10 days of returning from China, should have them screened for H7N9 avian flu,” notes Dr Vincent.

Meanwhile the WHO has also recently reported outbreaks in wild birds and domestic poultry of the influenza A H5N8 bird flu strain in some 24 countries on the European continent as well various countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. WHO says that this strain carries a relatively low risk for transmission from birds to humans, but points out that there is nevertheless still a risk of cross infection.

Dr Vincent added that bird flu is occasionally reported in bird populations in South Africa but it has not been known to have been transmitted to humans here. “A H7N2 strain was reported in an ostrich flock on a farm in the Western Cape in October last year. This outbreak was quickly and effectively isolated by authorities.”

The local National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reports in its January 2017 Communicable Diseases Communiqué that the most common type of influenza currently found in the northern hemisphere is Influenza A (H3N2). This is not related to avian flu and a vaccine is available for travellers.

“The 2016 southern hemisphere influenza vaccine is identical to the 2016/7 northern hemisphere vaccine, therefore South African travellers to the northern hemisphere may use a locally acquired vaccine prior to travel,” says the NCID.

The CDC says that travellers should take the following measures to protect themselves when visiting China:

  • Avoid touching birds no matter whether they are alive or dead.
  • Avoid live bird or poultry markets, and particularly places where birds are being slaughtered.
  • Avoid places that might be contaminated with bird faeces.
  • Only eat food that is fully cooked.
  • Avoid eating dishes or drinks that include blood from any animal.
  • As a general precaution, do not eat food from street vendors.
  • Practice good hand hygiene and cleanliness.
  • If you feel sick after visiting China, talk to your doctor particularly if you have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath.

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