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H7N9 first started infecting people in China in 2013. Like its cousin H5N1, the virus that drew attention to bird flu in 2004, it mainly infects birds and doesn’t readily pass from human to human – but should it acquire this ability a deadly pandemic could ensue.

H7N9 seems to jump to people from poultry more easily than H5N1, staging regular winter outbreaks in the last 4 years. By mid-2016 there were 798 known cases, and around 40 per cent of the people died. But since last October alone, there have been 424, the most ever seen in one season – and it isn’t over yet.

“I suspect the spike in cases of H7N9 is real,” says Malik Peiris of Hong Kong University, and not due to better diagnosis. He thinks the jump is due to an increase in poultry infections. Tests in poultry markets are finding H7N9 more often, he says, and it is spreading: this winter has seen human cases in 18 provinces of mainland China, including for the first time in southern Yunnan province, and it could spread to Vietnam from there.

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Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by CDC Global Health via Flickr

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New Scientist

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