Remember last month when I wrote about a human contracting a virus from a cat at a shelter? Well, now hundreds of cats quarantined in the New York City bird flu outbreak are infected with the strain of flu that recently crossed to a person.
This does not fill me with happiness.
When the initial transmission from feline to human is believed to have taken place, 45 cats in one animal shelter were confirmed as infected with avian flu H7N2. I wrote at the time:
For only the third time in the US, avian flu H7N2 may have passed from an animal to a human. Usually transmitted to people who have been handling infected poultry, this case appears to have been transmitted to a human from a cat. (Does this give whole new mean to the phrase, “the cat that ate the canary” or what?)
While the CDC has not conclusively confirmed the transmission, they said at the time of the outbreak:
H7N2 is an influenza virus that normally circulates in birds. Avian influenza viruses, commonly known as “bird flu” or “avian flu,” do not normally infect humans, but rare cases of human infection have occurred in the past. Most often, human infections with bird flu viruses result from direct contact with infected birds.
Recently CDC became aware of an outbreak of low pathogenic avian influenza A (H7N2) virus (LPAI H7N2) among cats in animal shelters in New York City. One human infection was detected in a person who had close, prolonged unprotected exposure to the respiratory secretions of H7N2 infected, sick cats at an affected shelter. For people who are in close contact with infected cats, the risk of infection is thought to be low. However, it is possible that additional human infections could occur.
While this isn’t absolutely conclusive, it certainly bears watching.
The virus is spreading quickly.
Flu viruses mutate quickly, and these mutations are unpredictable. To discover that this virus is spreading so rapidly is worrisome indeed.
Research into the H7N2 virus suggests genetic reassortment. This means that mutation of low pathogenic viruses such as H7N2 are eventually likely to recombine and swap genetic material with much more virulent forms of flu and become far more pathogenic to humans.
According to the Reuters report, more than 450 cats will be quarantined at the animal shelter for the next three months.
More than 450 cats will remain at a temporary shelter for up to 90 days until a University of Wisconsin lab confirms they are no longer contagious, the city’s health department said. ACC, the New York Health Department and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are monitoring the animals together.
The timing couldn’t be worse.
Although no more cases of human infection in anyone connected with the shelter have been reported, that doesn’t mean we are in the clear just yet.
We are right in the middle of “flu season” which means that circulating strains of more ordinary viruses could find it far easier to combine with H7N2.
The FluView figures published by the CDC indicate that ILI (influenza-like illnesses) are running at 3.2%, 1% above the baseline rates during week one of 2017 (no further figures are yet available)
New York City, Puerto Rio, and eight states (Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina) experienced high ILI activity.
While the government tells us that H7N2 is a low-level pathogen that causes mild illness, we still need to keep it on the radar. Most flu viruses that combine with other strains form a whole new variant of the disease to which humans often have little or no immunity.
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