New avian flu strain garners close attention from U.S. health agencies

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The public health community is on alert over a new strain of avian flu that has made the jump from birds to people, resulting in six confirmed deaths in China.

’€œAt this point it’€™s a matter of anxious waiting and good surveillance,’€ Research!America Board member Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Politico Pro.

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are joining forces with other international researchers to track this new strain, H7N9. Thus far, the only infected individuals appear to have come into direct contact with sick birds, indicating that currently this new strain cannot be passed from person to person. Should the virus mutate and gain the ability to jump from one person to another, health officials will have a potentially dangerous situation on their hands.

The CDC is using the genetic sequence of the H7N9 bird flu strain to initiate work on a vaccine and develop a kit that will enable public health officials to test for the virus. Health officials interviewed in the media are keeping a close watch on who is infected and how the disease is spreading. This new strain is putting more pressure on global health authorities who were already closely tracking the H5N1 flu, which, according to the Huffington Post, has claimed 360 lives since 2003.

When a new flu strain threatens to become an epidemic or tainted drugs claim dozens of lives, we look to the CDC to protect us. But what if the CDC budget is subjected to 10 years of sequestration? How much will our ability to respond to emerging international health issues be crippled if we continue to under-fund medical and health research? The CDC not only deals with emergent threats but has ongoing research projects on some of the world’€™s deadliest pathogens, such as ebola and smallpox, so that we can be prepared in the event of a future outbreak. Every day the CDC focuses on domestic public health issues as well, including motor vehicle safety. Learn more about how the CDC’€™s work impacts your life every day on their website.

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You can change the image of things to come. But you can’t do it sitting on your hands … The science community should reach out to Congress and build bridges.
The Honorable John E. Porter