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New Mexico State University

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NMSU researcher studies bird flu, intrigued by current cases in China

Health officials in China are looking into a serious bird flu outbreak that has killed at least 17 people and sickened dozens more. While such outbreaks pop up from time to time around the world, one researcher at New Mexico State University finds this one particularly intriguing.

A photo of NMSU researcher Susan Wilson.
Susan Wilson, a public health science researcher at New Mexico State University, studies the environmental aspects of influenza outbreaks and is watching the current avian influenza outbreak in China closely. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"From a research perspective, this is a new, novel form of influenza," said Susan Wilson, a researcher in NMSU's College of Health and Social Services. "It means the genetics have changed. This virus is put together in a way we haven't seen before."

Wilson has traveled the world, studying the environmental aspects of influenza outbreaks and presenting her findings. Her avian influenza research normally centers on the H5N1 form of the virus. The current cases in China are a new form, H7N9.

"It's still very early on with these cases," she said. "Right now, it seems to be related to chickens and poultry. There seems to be no human-to-human transmission, at least as far as they know."

As the name would suggest, avian influenza originates in birds. Only certain forms of avian influenza can be passed on to humans. Like other forms of influenza, it can cause respiratory problems, headaches, muscle aches and even death in certain cases.

Avian influenza kills domestic poultry, particularly chickens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, H5N1-infected animals have been reported in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Europe and the Near East. The disease is also highly pathogenic, meaning it is easily transmitted between sick birds and from sick birds to humans who come in close contact.

"The environmental risk factors for the current outbreak in China are probably similar to H5N1," Wilson said. "Sanitation is very important, especially after taking care of birds. Because of the way these viruses spread, the likelihood of it getting out of China at some point is pretty high."

Wilson hopes a better understanding of the disease, and how it spreads in other countries, can help community health workers in the U.S., and elsewhere, better educate the public.