A potentially deadly strain of avian flu that has infected a number of people in China and Taiwan could in the future result in a pandemic, causing researchers to reassess how such an outbreak would be managed.
Known as H7N9, this new strain of bird flu only emerged in 2013. However it has quickly proved to be very dangerous, causing severe respiratory issues and resulting in the death of almost a third of those infected – more than 130 people have believed to have died from the strain to date.
Initially it only seemed to be infecting people who had been in contact with live poultry. Chickens carrying the strain do not show symptoms, so unwary visitors and workers at live poultry markets were mainly affected.
However, there is some evidence that the virus can pass from person-to-person. A recent case saw a woman who was visiting Taipei, Taiwan, from China develop the condition. While she had visited a poultry market before her trip, another member of her tour group also developed the infection, despite claiming to have not been in any contact with poultry.
Similar is the case of a father and son who were infected: the father, who died from the virus, had been in contact with poultry, while the son had not.
There have been a small number of other confirmed cases where the patient had not had exposure to poultry, although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not released details of their likely source of exposure.
At present the WHO is advising that “There has been no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission, therefore the risk of ongoing international spread of H7N9 virus by travellers is low.”
However, if this were to change – a distinct possibility in such a new virus – it could spread quickly, causing health services to be overwhelmed.
Major health organisations and governments across the world have long made plans for a possible pandemic. These include plans for controlling population movement, maintaining effective communication, clinical management and, where possible vaccine programmes.
However, while most of these deal with top-down management from government, some researchers are exploring other options.
Recent research on US hospital management during a pandemic sought to address one particular challenge: satisfying patient preference while ensuring efficient management of resources.
Even during a pandemic, patients want to be able to choose which healthcare facility they visit. But allowing this would result in some facilities being completely overwhelmed while others remain under-used.
Their solution? To provide incentives to patients to encourage them to select the hospitals that make the most sense from a resource management point of view. These would include discounts, fast-track services and transportation.
Research undertaken by Lihui Bai of the University of Louisville, Kentucky and Jiang Zhang of Adelphi University, New York, found that when implemented properly this solution would work as well as forcing patients to attend particular facilities. It would also increase satisfaction, which would be a valuable outcome in such a high-stress scenario.
But for this to work an adequate model needs to be developed before a pandemic occurs. Let’s hope it can be developed in time.
Featured image courtesy of Nathan Nelson.