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Bird flu in Boston: Do you need to worry?

There was a lot of alarming talk last week about the new bird flu strain, and on Monday the World Health Organization reported three new cases of the H7N9 strain have been reported in China. That brings the total number of cases to 21 with six deaths, all in China, since the new strain was first reported on April 1.

How much do we need to worry about this flu strain becoming a global pandemic that eventually hits Boston?

Not much, say public health officials, since it doesn’t spread easily from person to person. Most people who have been infected contracted the virus after handling poultry. So far, there haven’t been any cases detected in the U.S.


“There are no specific steps people in this country can take. People can go about their daily lives,” Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News.

But many unknowns still remain about this new strain. “We still can’t predict whether it will have global significance. It does have the potential to become serious and it’s something we have to watch,” said Dr. Al DeMaria, an infectious disease specialist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Global flu pandemics have occurred every 20 to 40 years over the previous century, but now health officials, armed with rapid genetic sequencing techniques, have gotten far better at identifying new strains almost immediately.

“We’re finding viruses that we didn’t look for before thanks to better diagnostic technologies,” DeMaria said. “But we don’t quite know the full significance of what we’re observing, so we need to monitor all these new strains closely.”

Whether any of the flu strains that are deadly in animals will pose any real threat to humans remains to be seen.

The better known bird flu virus, H5N1, that’s been circulating for years in Europe, Asia, and Africa, has caused 332 human deaths and killed off millions of birds over the past decade. The U.S. has a stockpile of H5N1 vaccine just in case it ever begins to spread rapidly among humans, but so far, that hasn’t been the case.


The CDC has also been keeping its eye on a relatively new swine flu strain that spreads from pigs to humans causing dozens of illnesses in the U.S. over the past two years, but which also hasn’t shown a propensity to spread among humans.

As a precaution, however, small supplies of vaccines against this swine flu strain, H3N2v, have been developed and a vaccine is underway for the new bird flu strain H7N9, according to the CDC, to ensure that the government is prepared if the virus does become an epidemic.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.