Brace for bird flu in United States, CDC tells doctors

The World Health Organization said chickens, like these at a farm in Liaocheng, China, are still safe to eat despite the rise in H7N9 avian flu. The country confirmed five new cases of H7N9 on April 19, 2013, bringing the total to 92 cases with 17 deaths.

Brace for bird flu in the United States, authorities told health-care workers on Thursday, as China announced 92 confirmed cases of the new, mysterious H7N9 strain of the illness.

Hospitals and clinics should be vigilant for people exhibiting flu-like symptoms who have traveled from China, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The CDC also issued on Thursday “interim guidance” regarding the use of antiviral drugs in treating the disease.

There is no vaccine available for this strain of H7N9 avian flu, the CDC said, although it cautioned that the measures it is taking are routine.

While there is little evidence the disease is easily transmitted from poultry to humans, experts are watching the new strain closely because of its sudden arrival.

Because the strain is considered “novel,” or non-human, the threat of pandemic remains high should the disease mutate and spread between people.

“So far, this virus has not been determined to have that capability. However, influenza viruses constantly change and it’s possible that this virus could gain that ability,” the CDC says.

According to Chinese media, 17 people have died after contracting the illness.

Xinhua news agency also reports four new cases between Thursday and Friday at 5 p.m. Chinese doctors have released seven of those who contracted bird flu while 67 continue to receive treatment.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has launched an investigation into H7N9.

WHO officials are most interested in what caused the strain and how the sick contracted the bird flu, CNN reported.

Dr. Michael O’Leary in Beijing said until recently the strain had only infected poultry.

O’Leary also cautioned that there’s limited evidence that those who come in contact with – or have eaten chicken recently – for example, are at heightened risk.

“I eat chicken every day,” a laughing O’Leary told reporters, according to CNN. “Chicken is of no concern at all.”