26 Apr 2013

Asian countries tighten airport controls on flu fears

9:59 am on 26 April 2013

Several governments in Asia have ordered tougher screening of air travelers from China in an effort to contain a possible spread of a new strain of bird flu.

The H7N9 has killed 23 people on mainland China and infected one visitor from Taiwan. It has infected 109 people in China since it was first detected in March, Reuters reports.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization said it has no evidence so far of sustained transmission between people but added that this strain was more easily transmitted than an earlier, more deadly H5N1 strain that has killed hundreds around the world since 2003.

Taiwan reported the first H7N9 case outside of mainland China on Wednesday.

The 53-year-old man had returned from a visit to China's eastern city of Suzhou days before, and was being treated in hospital. He said he had not had any contact with poultry.

Taiwan has said it would test air travelers for bird flu if they displayed suspicious symptoms.

Vietnam has begun screening temperatures of all visitors at its airports and Japan said it will allow airports and seaports to make "thermographic inspections" of travelers from China starting in May.

Thai Health Minister Pradit Sintawanarong said the country must step up precautions, adding that the health ministry will soon submit a plan to the prime minister to address the problem.

Singapore's health ministry said its healthcare institutions remain on heightened alert.

Vaccine months away

New Zealand virologist Lance Jennings says a vaccine for the new virus is probably about five months away and the first wave of the disease is likely to have already passed through this country by then.

But Dr Jennings says H7N9 can be treated with existing anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu.

He says the new strain has a lower mortality rate than the last flu pandemic strain, with 20% of patients dying compared to 60% for H5N1.