Why You Shouldn't Worry About Catching Bird Flu from a Person ... Yet

It's far from comforting to hear that, according to a new study, the new H7N9 strain of bird flu has been passed from person to person for the first time. The finding has sparked some scary headlines. "First study of human transmission of new bird flu raises worries," Reuters reports. "Chinese bird flu may be spreading between people," adds the Guardian. But before you buy surgical masks in bulk and retreat to your sanitized basement evacuation shelter, consider that the authors of the scientific study, published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal, went out of their way to point out that the finding is not cause for too much alarm ...yet.

H7N9, the new strain of avian influenza, or "bird flu," was first reported on April 1 in China. So far, 134 people are confirmed to have caught it, and 43 have died. Severe pneumonia and other respiratory problems are common symptoms.

To determine whether the virus had spread from person to person, the British Medical Journal study examined a 60-year-old man in Wuxi, China, near Shanghai, who contracted the virus after shopping at live poultry markets. His daughter, 32, had no exposure to poultry, but caught the virus after caring for her father in the hospital. Analysis of the strains found in both the father and the daughter showed they were genetically almost identical, further indicating that H7N9 had passed between the two.

A deadly virus, in other words, appears to have spread between humans. But it might not be as bad as it sounds. Delve deeper into the study, and you'll find that the daughter was by her sick father's side for six to eight hours a day for a week, and had the rather unpleasant task of cleaning up his "oral secretions" without any protective equipment. The researchers tested all 43 other people who came into close contact with the father at least once a day -- many of them hospital workers -- and none of them had gotten sick. And it wasn't just because they were extra-careful medical professionals. The subjects stayed bird flu-free despite taking protective measures the authors call "relatively weak" such as using common surgical masks rather than special filtering masks. Even the son-in-law, who, like the daughter, provided bedside care without any protection, did not get sick. That situation suggests that having a genetic connection, as the father and daughter did but not the son-in-law, is an important factor in the virus's spread.

To review: What we know now is that it's possible for the new strain of bird flu to spread from one person to another person who is constantly by the former's bedside without protection, cleaning up his oral secretions, and biologically related to him -- not quite I Am Legend levels yet. As the authors put it, "The virus has not gained the ability for efficient sustained transmission from person to person."

Still, the finding that the virus can transmit from person to person at all does indicate that it could be something to worry about in the future. "Our findings reinforce that the novel virus possesses the potential for pandemic spread," the researchers warn.

For now, the key word in there is "potential."  

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images


Even Yemeni Government Spokesman Finds Foiled Plot Hard to Believe

Even the spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, D.C. is having a hard time believing a plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that the Yemeni government says it foiled.

Several news agencies -- including the BBC, the New York Times, and Bloomberg, among others -- reported this morning that the Yemeni government claimed it had stopped a large AQAP attack in Yemen's Hadhramaut province. As the BBC reported:

Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said the plot involved blowing up oil pipelines and taking control of certain cities -- including two ports in the south, one of which accounts for the bulk of Yemen's oil exports and is where a number of foreign workers are employed.

"There were attempts to control key cities in Yemen like Mukala and Bawzeer," said Mr Badi.

"This would be co-ordinated with attacks by al-Qaeda members on the gas facilities in Shebwa city and the blowing up of the gas pipe in Belhaf city."

That didn't sound right to Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy, and he said so on his personal Twitter account:

AQAP notably tried to seize Yemeni towns in 2011 and 2012, as the country's popular uprising drew the military's attention to the capital, Sanaa. And it was a strategic blunder for the organization. AQAP and its political arm, Ansar al-Sharia, alienated the towns they occupied and were ousted by the Yemeni military and "popular committees" -- militias formed by local sheikhs to retake the area. Since being pushed out in mid-2012, AQAP has remained in hiding.

The New York Times was more measured in its appraisal of the threat, reporting that the target was not whole cities, but rather a specific Canadian-operated oil installation in the Hadhramaut port capital of Mukallah. But even this seemed strange to some Yemen experts.

"[Yemeni authorities are] claiming that this plot that they've foiled includes attacks planned against oil pipelines here, specifically to take control of several ports in Yemen," Iona Craig, a correspondent for the Times of London, told BBC World Service from Sanaa. "Now, the oil pipelines get attacked on a regular basis -- in fact, they've been blown up twice in the last two weeks -- so that's not unusual, and it's not always related to al Qaeda." In fact, oil pipelines are frequently targeted by Yemeni tribal groups as a means of forcing concessions from the central government.

Adding to the dubious nature of the report: The Yemeni government did not specify how it thwarted the supposed attack. The United States conducted an airstrike in neighboring Shabwa province on Wednesday, killing seven, but that hardly seems sufficient to stop what was, by the Yemeni government's account, to be a large-scale attack.

The Yemeni government has a history of making outsized claims about its counterterrorism successes; on at least two occasions, officials claimed to have killed AQAP's deputy emir, Said al-Shihri, only for Shihri to release statements demonstrating that he was still very much alive. But there's little wonder why the Yemeni government would claim a victory now. With the U.S. diplomatic community in lockdown in response to a terror threat emanating from Yemen -- Craig, speaking to the BBC, describes the persistent hum of P-3 Orion electronic surveillance planes circling Sanaa today -- the government has every reason to try and demonstrate that it's doing its part in combating AQAP. As for what precisely that part has consisted of -- well, Yemeni officials have been more tight-lipped on that front.