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China's H5N1 bird flu scare should be least of influenza worries

January 03, 2012|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Ma Hanwu, vice director of Shenzhen Center for Disease Control and Prevention, right, speaks as Zhou Boping, director of the Shenzhen No. 3 People's Hospital looks at the documents during a press conference about a bird flu patient in Shenzhen in south China's Guangdong province. The strain of H5N1 bird flu that killed a Chinese man cannot spread among people, a health agency said Monday, appealing for calm after the country's first reported case of the disease in humans in 18 months.
Ma Hanwu, vice director of Shenzhen Center for Disease Control and Prevention,… (Associated Press )

Local Chinese health officials have appealed for calm after the death of a man infected with H5N1 bird flu in the city of Shenzhen.

"Though it is highly pathogenic to human beings, the virus can not spread among people," said in a statement from the Shenzhen Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "There is no need for Shenzhen citizens to panic."

The man, a 39-year-old bus driver, developed a fever on Dec. 21 and was hospitalized Dec. 25. He died a week after two diseased dead birds were identified in nearby Hong Kong.

H5N1 is a notoriously deadly strain of flu -- but it rarely infects humans, because it's typically contracted by people who somehow come into contact with diseased poultry. Once someone is infected, however, they're not contagious -- the virus can't jump to anyone else.

To see how this plays out in the numbers: Since 2003, there have been 573 confirmed cases of avian flu worldwide, 336 of which were fatal, according to the World Health Organization. But in the U.S. alone -- and for the 2003-04 flu season alone -- there were as many as 48,614 flu-related deaths, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Adults over the age of 65 were most at risk.

For what it's worth, though, that 2003-04 season was an extreme example, the high point of infections over the three decades between 1976 and 2007. Flu seasons such as 2003-04, during which the H3N2 strain predominated, tended to be more deadly overall, according to the CDC report.

Deaths from seasonal flu were much lower during the 2006-07 season -- an estimated 15,573 deaths in the U.S. -- but still far more than the World Health Organization's reported 88 cases and 59 deaths worldwide from H5N1 bird flu in 2007. (No cases have been reported in the United States.)

So, if you're scared of the flu, probably the best thing to do would be to go get a flu shot for the seasonal strains that could be fatal, rather than worry about the rare, exotic forms of flu that probably won't be. Here's some information from the CDC on who should get vaccinated, and when.

Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.

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